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Health

Want to get off to sleep? Ask your astrocytes nicely

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© Charles Milligan/Getty
Succumbing to "sleep pressure"
If you're feeling sleepy, it might be thanks to your astrocytes. This group of brain cells, long assumed to play a mere housekeeping role, may actually be responsible for controlling when we fall asleep, by releasing a chemical called adenosine.

"One of the leading theories of sleep generation comes from the observation that there is an accumulation of adenosine [in the brain] during waking, and that this adenosine decreases during subsequent sleep," says Tommaso Fellin at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa. Adenosine is thought to suppress neurons which usually stimulate the cortex and keep it, and so us, awake. However, he says, "the cellular source of this adenosine has long been overlooked".

Astrocytes play a key role in providing neurons with nutrients and aiding cell repair. In addition, unlike neurons that control immediate brain activity, astrocytes are thought to modulate longer-term activity by regulating communication between neurons. Because sleep pressure - the physiological mechanisms that result in the need to sleep - also builds up over a prolonged period of time, Fellin and Michael Halassa, now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and colleagues, decided to investigate whether astrocytes might be the source of the adenosine that may drive the urge to sleep.

Family

Accepting That Good Parents May Plant Bad Seeds

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© Gracia Lam
"I don't know what I've done wrong," the patient told me.

She was an intelligent and articulate woman in her early 40s who came to see me for depression and anxiety. In discussing the stresses she faced, it was clear that her teenage son had been front and center for many years.

When he was growing up, she explained, he fought frequently with other children, had few close friends, and had a reputation for being mean. She always hoped he would change, but now that he was almost 17, she had a sinking feeling.

I asked her what she meant by mean. "I hate to admit it, but he is unkind and unsympathetic to people," she said, as I recall. He was rude and defiant at home, and often verbally abusive to family members.

Along the way, she had him evaluated by many child psychiatrists, with several extensive neuropsychological tests. The results were always the same: he tested in the intellectually superior range, with no evidence of any learning disability or mental illness. Naturally, she wondered if she and her husband were somehow remiss as parents.

Comment: Psychologist Robert Hare is devoted to the study of psychopathy. His research may upset a lot of people because until the psychopath came into focus, it was possible to believe that bad people were just good people with bad parents or childhood trauma. But Hare's research suggested that some people behaved badly even when there had been no early trauma nor bad parenting. Moreover, since psychopaths' brains are in fundamental ways different from ours, talking them into being like us might not be easy. Indeed, to this day, no one has found a way to do so. More information at hare.org.

For further discussions on this topic, please visit our forum.


Magnify

The Men Who Stare at Screens

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© David De Lossy/Getty Images
In 1982, researchers affiliated with the Cooper Institute in Dallas surveyed a large group of well-educated, affluent men. The researchers were interested in the men's exercise habits, but they also asked, almost incidentally, about their indolence. Specifically, they inquired about how many hours each day the men spent watching television or sitting in a car. (This was before you could do both at once.) Over the years, the survey's main results were used to reinforce a growing body of science about the health benefits of regular exercise.

But the information about the amount of time the men spent being inactive remained largely unexplored. Recently, however, scientists from the University of South Carolina and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., parsed the full data. In a study published in May in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, they reported that, to no one's surprise, the men who sat the most had the greatest risk of heart problems. Men who spent more than 23 hours a week watching TV and sitting in their cars (as passengers or as drivers) had a 64 percent greater chance of dying from heart disease than those who sat for 11 hours a week or less.

What was unexpected was that many of the men who sat long hours and developed heart problems also exercised. Quite a few of them said they did so regularly and led active lifestyles. The men worked out, then sat in cars and in front of televisions for hours, and their risk of heart disease soared, despite the exercise. Their workouts did not counteract the ill effects of sitting.

Bulb

Scientists Find Brain Cells That Help in Breathing

breathing
© Getty Images
Scientists find brain cells that help in breathing
Scientists claim to have found a certain kind of cells in the brain that might play a key role in controlling breathing, a discovery which they believe could lead to new treatment for serious respiratory disorders.

In laboratory rats, researchers at the University College London found that the star-shaped cells, known as astrocytes, can sense changes in blood carbon dioxide levels and then signal other brain networks to adjust breathing -- taking in vital oxygen and expelling waste carbon dioxide.

"This research identifies brain astrocytes as previously unrecognised crucial elements of the brain circuits controlling fundamental bodily functions vital for life, such as breathing, and indicates that they are indeed the real stars of the brain," said lead researcher Alexander Gourine.

The researchers believe it could be possible that these brain cells or others like them contribute to disorders associated with respiratory failure such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), LiveScience reported.

Health

"Gluten-Free" Foods May Be Contaminated

New York - People with celiac disease and others who avoid gluten should beware that foods that are supposed to be naturally gluten-free are often contaminated, warns a new study.

Gluten is a kind of protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. In people with celiac disease - a condition that affects up to about 1 percent of the U.S. population - gluten triggers an immune reaction that causes damage to the small intestine and keeps the body from absorbing nutrients.

Grains such as oats, millet, and rice don't have this protein. But in a new survey of grains, seeds, and flours that should be gluten-free, researchers found that some of these products had picked up traces of gluten - probably from being grown or processed near grains that do naturally contain gluten.

"There was some general assumption (among people with celiac disease) that those naturally gluten-free grains and flours weren't contaminated," Tricia Thompson, a nutrition consultant on celiac disease and the lead author on the study, told Reuters Health.

Thompson and her colleagues analyzed 22 naturally gluten-free grains, seeds, and flours off supermarket shelves, only looking at products that weren't specifically advertised as being gluten-free. They tested the amount of gluten in those products against a proposed Food and Drug Administration limit for any product labeled gluten-free, 20 parts contaminant per million parts product.

Seven of the 22 products wouldn't pass the FDA's gluten-free test - and one product, a type of soy flour, had a gluten content of almost 3,000 parts per million, the authors found. Other products from the sample that weren't truly gluten-free included millet flour and grain, buckwheat flour, and sorghum flour.

Comment: See our articles on celiac disease and wheat:

The Dark Side of Wheat: New Perspectives on Celiac Disease and Wheat Intolerance

Can You Stomach Wheat? How Giving Up Grain May Better Your Health

Headaches, Depression, Nerve Damage, and Seizures...Is Gluten to Blame?


Family

Behavior Problems in School Linked to Two Types of Families

The Storm
© William-Adolphe Bouguereau
The Storm


Contrary to Leo Tolstoy's famous observation that "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," a new psychology study confirms that unhappy families, in fact, are unhappy in two distinct ways. And these dual patterns of unhealthy family relationships lead to a host of specific difficulties for children during their early school years.

"Families can be a support and resource for children as they enter school, or they can be a source of stress, distraction, and maladaptive behavior," says Melissa Sturge-Apple, the lead researcher on the paper and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.

"This study shows that cold and controlling family environments are linked to a growing cascade of difficulties for children in their first three years of school, from aggressive and disruptive behavior to depression and alienation," Sturge-Apple explains. "The study also finds that children from families marked by high levels of conflict and intrusive parenting increasingly struggle with anxiety and social withdrawal as they navigate their early school years."

The three-year study, published July 15 in Child Development, examines relationship patterns in 234 families with six-year-old children. The research team identified three distinct family profiles: one happy, termed cohesive, and two unhappy, termed disengaged and enmeshed.

Cohesive families are characterized by harmonious interactions, emotional warmth, and firm but flexible roles for parents and children. "Think the Cosby family," says Sturge-Apple, offering an example from the popular TV series about the affable Huxtable family.

Comment: For more information, see The Narcissistic Family by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert M. Pressman. In the book, the authors describe the narcissistic family system - the "parent system" - primarily involved in getting its own needs met, therefore taking precedence over the "child system." Children try to earn love, attention and approval by satisfying their families' needs. Never getting their own feelings validated, these children will then have problems which will further contribute to the narcissistic family system. From the book:
Links between the experiences of childhood and their sometimes permanent effect on adult behavior have long fascinated observers of human behavior. Of particular interest has been the impact of one's family of origin on personal development. In the last decade, the concept of the "adult child of alcoholism" (ACOA) has helped us to understand the nearly predictable effects of being raised in an alcoholic family system. As therapists, many of us have worked for years with individuals suffering from what appeared to be immutable low self-esteem, inability to sustain intimacy, and/or blocked paths to self-understanding. The concept of the ACOA opened a new door to the understanding of such problems. [...]

[A]long with the benefits of working with the ACOA and abuse models came a puzzle. What about individuals who had the traits of an ACOA but whose parents did not drink, or rape, or beat? True, there was dysfunction in their families, but the common thread was elusive. Among adult children of dysfunctional (but nonalcoholic and nonabusive) families, we found a body of personality traits previously identified with the ACOA model. These included chronic depression, indecisiveness, and lack of self-confidence.

Within this population we found common behavioral traits as well: a chronic need to please; an inability to identify feelings, wants, and needs; and a need for constant validation. This group of patients felt that the bad things that happened to them were well deserved, while the good things that happened were probably mistakes or accidents. They had difficulty being assertive, privately feeling a pervasive sense of rage that they feared might surface. They felt like paper tigers - often very angry, but easily beaten down. Their interpersonal relationships were characterized by distrust and suspicion (bordering on paranoia), interspersed with often disastrous episodes of total and injudicious trusting and self-disclosure.

They were chronically dissatisfied, but were fearful of being perceived as whiners or complainers if they expressed their true feelings. Many could hold their anger in for extremely long periods of time, then become explosive over relatively insignificant matters. They had a sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction with their achievements; this was found even among individuals who externally may have been viewed as very successful.

The list of people included professionals who were obsessively involved in their enterprises, but were unable to achieve at a level at which they found satisfaction. In relationships, these individuals frequently found themselves in repeated dead-end situations. [...]

The principle clue was that in the absence of alcohol abuse, other forms of dysfunctional parenting (such as incest, physical abuse, emotional neglect and physical absence) seemed to produce the same symptoms. [...]

As we began to track common traits shared by the parent systems of the survivors, we identified a pattern of interaction that we labeled the narcissistic family. Regardless of the presence or absence of identifiable abuse, we found one pervasive trait present in all of these families: the needs of the parent system took precedence over the needs of the children.

We have found that in the narcissistic family, the needs of the children are not only secondary to those of the parent(s), but are often seriously problematic for the latter. If one is to track the narcissistic family on any of the well-known developmental scales (such as Maslow's or Erikson's), one sees that the most fundamental needs of the child, those of trust and safety, are not met. Furthermore, the responsibility of needs fulfillment shifts from the parent to the child. [...]

In this family situation, the child must be reactive to the needs of the parent, rather than the converse. In fact, the narcissistic family is consumed with dealing with the emotional needs of the parent system. [...]

Over time, these children learn that their feelings are of little or negative value. They begin to detach from their feelings, to lose touch with them. Often this denial of feelings is functional to the child, as to express them only adds fuel to the fire. Instead of understanding, recognizing, and validating their own needs, these children develop an exaggerated sense of their impact on the needs of their parent(s). Indeed, they become the reflection of their parents' emotional needs. The needs of the parent become a moving target on which they struggle to focus. Because they feel responsible for correcting the situation without having the requisite power and control to do so, the children develop a sense of failure. Moreover, they fail to learn how to validate their own feelings and meet their own needs. In time, the children undergo a semipermanent numbing of feelings. As adults, these individuals may not know what they feel, except for varying degrees of despair, frustration, and dissatisfaction. (Pressman, The Narcissistic Family, Lexington Books, 1997)
For further discussions on this topic, please visit our forum.


Light Saber

Dr. Riki Ott: A Message to BP Workers and Residents in the Gulf

This interview was done for the residents and BP workers in the Gulf; what chemicals you're most likely being exposed to and what you can do to protect your children and yourself from the toxins in the air, water and beaches.


Magnify

Increasing Attention Span With Meditation

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© iStockphoto
It's nearly impossible to pay attention to one thing for a long time. A new study looks at whether Buddhist meditation can improve a person's ability to be attentive and finds that meditation training helps people do better at focusing for a long time on a task that requires them to distinguish small differences between things they see.

The research was inspired by work on Buddhist monks, who spend years training in meditation. "You wonder if the mental skills, the calmness, the peace that they express, if those things are a result of their very intensive training or if they were just very special people to begin with," says Katherine MacLean, who worked on the study as a graduate student at the University of California-Davis. Her co-advisor, Clifford Saron, did some research with monks decades ago and wanted to study meditation by putting volunteers through intensive training and seeing how it changes their mental abilities.

About 140 people applied to participate; they heard about it via word of mouth and advertisements in Buddhist-themed magazines. Sixty were selected for the study. A group of thirty people went on a meditation retreat while the second group waited their turn; that meant the second group served as a control for the first group. All of the participants had been on at least three five-to-ten day meditation retreats before, so they weren't new to the practice. They studied meditation for three months at a retreat in Colorado with B. Alan Wallace, one of the study's co-authors and a meditation teacher and Buddhist scholar.

The people took part in several experiments; results from one are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Ambulance

Big Pharma Nanotechnology Encodes Pills with Tracking Data That You Swallow

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© Unknown
The emerging field of nanotechnology is currently gaining a lot of attention across many industries. Nanotechnology allows scientists to manipulate individual atoms and molecules to create unique materials and even micro-scale devices, and this is leading to a wide range of applications in clothing, textiles, electronics and even food and medicine.

Sounds great, right? Except for the fact that, like genetic modification of food crops, nanotechnology tampers with Mother Nature in a way that's largely untested for safety. And here's something really bizarre: The pharmaceutical industry may soon begin using nanotechnology to encode drug tablets and capsules with brand and tracking data that you swallow as part of the pill.

Pills

New Study Shows Dramatic Rise in Prescription Painkiller Abuse

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© alternet
America's gone nuts on prescription drugs
A new US government study shows a dramatic increase in painkiller abuse that cuts across all age, race and ethnic groups as well as in every region of the country.

The Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) conducted a 10-year study (1998-2008) on the non-medical abuse of prescription painkillers that shows an increase of more than 400 percent on those aged 12 and older, from 2.2 percent to 9.8 percent.

The dramatic rise in the proportion of admissions linked with the painkiller abuse occurred in almost all population segments regardless of age, education level, gender and employment status.