A medicine that can turbocharge learning?

The Mind of the News

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Medical researchers have reported a truly astounding discovery.  Giving the medication valproic acid (trade name, Depakote) to adults may allow the brain to assimilate new skills and learn new concepts at the same astounding rate that children pick them up.

Valproic acid is usually used to treat seizure disorders and bipolar disorder.  It is thought to enhance neuronal plasticity—helping the brain remodel its connections and perhaps recover from acute or chronic injuries.

Takao Hensch, professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University, divided volunteers into one group that received doses of valproic acid for two weeks and another that received placebo. Both groups were asked to perform online tasks to train their ears and identify various tones—to have, in essence, perfect pitch.

The results showed that those individuals who had received the valproic acid scored significantly higher on the difficult learning task.

In fact, prior to Hensch’s experiment, there were no known reports of adults acquiring perfect pitch.  But some of those who received valproic acid did.

This finding opens up the amazing possibility that valproic acid, and perhaps other medicines like it, could allow adults to have the same learning capacity as kids for new languages, new math skills and new artistic skills.  It also makes one wonder how those suffering with dementia might fare if treated with valproic acid.

The side effects of valproic acid can include liver damage.  Hence, when the medicine is used clinically to treat seizures or bipolar disorder, liver function tests must be performed regularly, and blood levels of the medication must be monitored to keep its concentration from rising to toxic levels.  There are other potential side effects too, including drosiness, hair loss and tremor.  But millions of people take valproic acid today without serious side effects.

Much more research needs to be done, and I would not recommend people trying out valproic acid now to enhance learning.  But that day may come.


Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. Dr. Ablow can be reached atinfo@keithablow.com.

What happens during a skin graft procedure?


When skin becomes too damaged to heal properly, your surgeon will perform a skin graft procedure, which involves transplanting healthy skin onto the damaged site.

Conditions that may require this kind of procedure include a severe burn, skin ulcer, skin biopsy, surgical wound or infection.

Your surgeon will determine whether a split thickness skin graft or a full thickness skin graft is needed, depending on the depth of the area it needs to cover.  After anesthesia, the surgeon uses an instrument called a dermatome to remove very thin slices of healthy skin, creating a split thickness skin graft. For full thickness skin grafts, a scalpel is used to remove all the layers of skin.

The area is cleaned, and any unhealthy tissue is removed. The surgeon places the skin graft on the wound site using stitches to secure it in place.

After the procedure is finished, your doctor will prescribe pain medications and give directions on how to properly clean and protect the skin as it heals.

Scientists discover new way of overcoming human stem cell rejection

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Human embryonic stem cells have the capacity to differentiate into a variety of cell types, making them a valuable source of transplantable tissue for the treatment of numerous diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease and diabetes.

But there’s one major issue: Embryonic stem cells are often rejected by the human immune system.

Now, researchers from the University of California San Diego may have found an effective way to prevent this rejection in humans.  Utilizing a novel humanized mouse model, the scientists have revealed a unique combination of immune suppressing molecules that stop the immune system from attacking the injected stem cells – without shutting the system down completely.

This discovery could ultimately help resolve some of the major problems currently limiting the use of embryonic stem cells for certain conditions, paving the way for the development of more effective human stem cell therapies.

“This is a generic way of immune suppression, so it could potentially be applied not just for stem cells therapies, but for organ transplants as well,” Yang Xu, a professor of biology at UC San Diego and lead author of the study, told FoxNews.com.  “It can be very broad.”

Embryonic stem cells are different from the other cells in a patient’s body, making them “allogenic.”  This means the immune system will recognize them as foreign agents and attack them.

One way of overcoming this rejection problem is to give patients immunosuppressant drugs, which suppress the entire immune system.  While short term use of immunosuppressants has been successful for many organ transplants, embryonic stem cell therapies for chronic diseases require long term use of these drugs – which can often be very toxic and increase the risk of cancer.

“In order for the patient to really use this therapy, they have to decide: Do they want a lifelong use of immunosuppressant drugs, or are they willing to live with the symptoms of their disease,” Xu said.

To figure out a way of bypassing this issue, researchers needed a relevant model that could closely mimic the human immune system’s response to embryonic stem cell transplantation.  To do this, they took immune deficient lab mice and grafted them with human fetal thymus tissues and hematopoietic stem cells derived from the fetal liver.

Essentially, this created a highly specialized mouse model with very robust T cells – capable of effectively rejecting foreign embryonic stem cells just like human T cells.

“The mouse immune system is very similar to humans but still very different,” Xu said.  “What we learn from mouse models does not really translate to the clinic.  So what we decided to do, rather than relying entirely on the mouse immune system, we tried to do a more human relevant system.  And it’s as close as can be at this moment.”

With these newly “humanized” mice, Xu and his team then tested various immune suppressing molecules after they had injected the mice with embryonic stem cells.  After some trial and error, they found that a combination of CTLA4-lg – an FDA-approved drug for treating rheumatoid arthritis – and a protein called PD-L1 – which induces immune tolerance in tumors – effectively protected the stem cells from rejection.

According to Xu, they don’t yet know why this specific combination protects embryonic stem cells, but they believe that both of the molecules may be suppressing the body’s T cells in two very different – and very important – ways.

“What was surprising was if you have these two together, you get nearly 100 percent local immune suppression and allow the graft to survive. But at the same time, there’s no effect on other parts of the body,” Xu said. “But if you only express one molecule, it has no impact.  That is the cool finding of this study.”

Since this drug combination was so successful in the humanized mice, the researchers hope to begin testing it on monkeys, before eventually moving on to human clinical trial.

“I think this is one of the few cases where we can have confidence that this combination would probably work in humans, because the system is so close,” Xu said.  “So the translation potential is very high.”

The research was published online in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Erasing unwanted memories may now be possible

The Mind of the News


A new study published in the journal Nature will challenge us to define what mental health really means.  Researchers found that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) – used to treat severe cases of major depression – can also potentially erase troubling memories.

ECT induces seizures in the brain.  It isn’t clear why it works to alleviate symptoms of major depression, but it is effective.  One of the side effects is memory loss for events very close in time to when ECT is performed.  But now, it looks like ECT may be able to obliterate memories that have lasted a long time but are brought to the surface again just before having the procedure done.

This sounds like the stuff of science fiction.  In the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a couple no longer in love decide to erase their memories of one another.  And in a novel I wrote called Murder Suicide, the main character decides to erase his memory of all relationships and begin life anew, free of all prior interpersonal conflicts.

The research published in Nature was conducted with people undergoing ECT for major depression.  They were told very troubling stories—one, for example, about a child whose feet must be amputated.  A week later, just prior to receiving ECT, they were asked to recall these stories.  The idea was that remembering the details would shift the story into a very recent form of recall, where it might be temporarily unstable.

The results were that the ECT made people unable to recall the story.  In other words, their very graphic and troubling recollections, which had persisted for a week, were gone after having seizures induced.

This may mean that people who have gone through terrible trauma in war or in accidents can have the memory of those events removed by bringing them to mind and then using ECT to “erase” them.

What this also means, however, is that our notion about what it means to have lived and to have a life story may be challenged.  If we erase adversity—even trauma—from the minds of those who object to it, won’t we also be erasing the potential for great leaders who have overcome trauma the old fashioned way?  If we suggest that shocking people out of their anxiety and sadness is the right way to “get over it,” won’t we be belittling the concept of human empathy, through which we commiserate with the suffering of others?

Are we on the road to extinguishing another layer of reality and truth, following in the footsteps of the fakery of Facebook and other social media?

Psychiatrists and spiritual thinkers like the late M. Scott Peck warned that seeking to avoid all adversity is the road to weakness and to a willingness to let evil people and ideas overcome us.  I think we are on that road and that our search to feel no pain will result in our inability to feel much of anything, including pleasure.

Our Achilles’ heel as a culture, and perhaps as a species, is our unwillingness to suffer.


Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. Dr. Ablow can be reached atinfo@keithablow.com.

Thicker brain sections tied to spirituality, study finds

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For people at high risk of depression because of a family history, spirituality may offer some protection for the brain, a new study hints.

Parts of the brain’s outer layer, the cortex, were thicker in high-risk study participants who said religion or spirituality was “important” to them versus those who cared less about religion.

“Our beliefs and our moods are reflected in our brain and with new imaging techniques we can begin to see this,” Myrna Weissman told Reuters Health. “The brain is an extraordinary organ. It not only controls, but is controlled by our moods.”

Weissman, who worked on the new study, is a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia University and chief of the Clinical-Genetic Epidemiology department at New York State Psychiatric institute.

While the new study suggests a link between brain thickness and religiosity or spirituality, it cannot say that thicker brain regions cause people to be religious or spiritual, Weissman and her colleagues note in JAMA Psychiatry.

It might hint, however, that religiosity can enhance the brain’s resilience against depression in a very physical way, they write.

Previously, the researchers had found that people who said they were religious or spiritual were at lower risk of depression. They also found that people at higher risk for depression had thinning cortices, compared to those with lower depression risk.

The cerebral cortex is the brain’s outermost layer made of gray matter that forms the organ’s characteristic folds. Certain areas of the cortex are important hubs of neural activity for processes such as sensory perception, language and emotion.

For the new study, the researchers twice asked 103 adults between the ages of 18 and 54 how important religion or spirituality was to them and how often they attended religious services over a five-year period.

In addition to being asked about spirituality, the participants’ brains were imaged once to see how thick their cortices were.

All the participants were the children or grandchildren of people who participated in an earlier study about depression. Some had a family history of depression, so they were considered to be at high risk for the disorder. Others with no history served as a comparison group.

Overall, the researchers found that the importance of religion or spirituality to an individual – but not church attendance – was tied to having a thicker cortex. The link was strongest among those at high risk of depression.

“What we’re doing now is looking at the stability of it,” Weissman said.

Her team is taking more images of the participants’ brains to see whether the size of the cortex changes with their religiosity or spirituality.

“This is a way of replicating and validating the findings,” she said. “That work is in process now.”

Dr. Dan Blazer, the J.P. Gibbons Professor of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, said the study is very interesting but is still exploratory.

“I think this tells us it’s an area to look at,” Blazer, who was not involved in the new study, said. “It’s an area of interest but we have to be careful.”

For example, he said there could be other areas of the brain linked to religion and spirituality. Also, spirituality may be a marker of something else, such as socioeconomic status.

Blazer added that it’s an exciting time, because researchers are actively looking at links between the brain, religion and risk of depression.

“We’ve seen this field move from a time when there were virtually no studies done at all,” he said.

Weissman said the mind and body are intimately connected.

“What this means therapeutically is hard to say,” she added.

3-year-old Tampa boy survives rare 5-organ transplant


A little boy from Tampa has survived a five-organ transplant. Tuesday, his mother and doctors shared their medical miracle with the world.

Three-year-old Adonis Ortiz was born with his intestines outside his abdominal wall.

“Four hours after he was born, he had his first surgery,” said his father Eximer Ortiz.

Adonis had “short gut syndrome,” which meant he did not have enough intestine to absorb nutrients.

It means he has had to be fed intravenously all his life, and has never been able eat.

Then, his liver started to fail.

So in October, doctors at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami did a rare, multi-transplant surgery. Adonis got a new liver, pancreas, stomach, and small and large intestines.

All the organs came from the same donor.

The surgery took six hours, and Adonis pulled through remarkably well.

Click from My Fox Orlando

Patients who came into direct contact with cobalt-60 likely to die, expert says

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    A container reportedly used to transport cobalt-60 (C) is seen at a home near where the dangerous radioactive medical material was found in a truck in the town of Hueypoxtla, near Mexico City December 5, 2013. (REUTERS/Henry Romero)

Six people have reportedly been admitted to a hospital in Mexico for radiation exposure after they came into contact with, or were in the vicinity of, stolen containers of highly radioactive cobalt-60.

Earlier reports indicated that the stolen containers had been broken open, and if this is the case, one expert said any patient who came into direct contact with the radioactive material may be vulnerable to central nervous system failure – a condition that results in the swelling of the brain and paralysis, and can lead to death in a matter of hours.

“All you can do is supportive care, perhaps steroids and IV fluids and monitoring and doing what you can,” Dr. James O’Donnell, division chief of nuclear medicine at the University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, told FoxNews.com. “If you know someone is exposed above (a certain) point, if they do experience central nervous system collapse, our experience in [the] medical world is there’s not an awful lot you can do, it’s not likely to be successful and they’re likely to die.”

Cobalt-60 is an isotope typically only used in machinery, or in radiation therapy for cancer patients, according to O’Donnell. The health effects of exposure to cobalt-60 depend upon the length of time a person is exposed, their distance from the radioactive material, and whether or not any type of shielding was present – for example, if the radioactive material was stored in a container.

While any patients who experienced direct contact with cobalt-60 may be at risk of death, O’Donnell said that others who were simply in the vicinity of the material may experience lesser side effects,  such as skin burns or blisters, or gastrointestinal problems.

“With the kinds of exposures they were getting, I would guess it isn’t going to be really hyper-acute, like a bomb, but more gastrointestinal, which means they could get cramping, nausea, vomiting, bleeding that would be hard to control,” O’Donnell said.

Reports indicate that one patient admitted was experiencing dizziness and vomiting, according to FoxNews.com.

Risk to hospital workers

Depending on whether or not the admitted patients experienced direct contact with cobalt-60, other patients or hospital workers may be at some risk for exposure to the radioactive material, O’Donnell noted.

“If someone is (externally) exposed to gamma rays, the treatment of the patient is external and there’s no real hazard to any health care personnel or anyone taking care of them. You’re not going to catch someone else’s sunburn,” O’Donnell said. “But if they broke into the container and scraped it, or got it on them, now they’re contaminated and if someone else were to get it on them, now they could be exposed because the actual source of the radiation is there.”

However, he noted that most hospitals are equipped to deal with radiation exposure and are well-versed on techniques that can limit the exposure of hospital workers, or other patients.

“Everything stops, you try to put down absorbent paper, cover things up, cover things with a lead apron, try to isolate the contamination away from people. Then clean up the patient, wash them up, hose them off,” O’Donnell said. “And that’s where the radiation safety people at the hospital get involved with radiation detectors, and try to get (the radiation) back down to the background level.”

Any hospital with a radiology department would have access to dosimeters, which track exposure to radiated energy, according to O’Donnell. As a result, they would be able to ensure that hospital workers limit their exposure. Long-term exposure to radiation has been associated with an increased risk for certain cancers like lymphoma or leukeumia.

“You can never say the risk of anything is zero, but the foreseeable risk would be low enough for occupation workers,” O’Donnell said. “It’s based on our experience that for people who get no more (a certain amount of exposure), there’s no increase in cancers.”

Ask a science teacher: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

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Every generation has argued this question. It is an ancient dilemma going back to the times of Aristotle (384–322 bc) and Plutarch (about 46–120 ad). Aristotle took the easy way out, concluding that both the chicken and the egg must have always existed. Aristotle, like Plato, believed that everything on Earth first had its being in spirit.

In science and engineering, the situation is known as circular reference, in which a parameter must be known to calculate the parameter itself. In other words, one must know something to calculate that same something.

Stephen Hawking, the famous astrophysicist who is often called the successor to Albert Einstein, has argued that the egg came before the chicken. Hawking, an ardent thinker in his own right, is an adherent of Christopher Langan. Both Hawking and Langan are said to have IQs approaching 200. Langan has developed a “Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe.” He tackles the chicken-and-egg problem in “Which Came First?,” one of the philosophical essays in his book, The Art of Knowing.

A literal interpretation of the Bible would put the chicken before the egg. To quote Genesis: “And God blessed them, saying, be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the water in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.”

Hinduism and Buddhism hold that there is a wheel of time, meaning that there is no first in eternity. Time is cyclical. There is no creation, so neither the egg nor the chicken came first.

Here is another argument: Chickens came about from non-chickens through small changes, or mutations, in the DNA. Prior to the first true chicken, there were non-chickens. The DNA changes came about in cells housed in the egg. So the egg came first.

In July 2010, British scientists, using a supercomputer, claimed to have come up with the final and definitive answer. They identified the protein, ovocleidin-17, that is required to speed up the production of eggshell within the chicken. In twenty-four hours, an egg is ready to be laid. An egg cannot be produced without the chicken. So that settles it, once and for all. The chicken came first.

That’s my answer and I’m sticking to it!

From the book, “Ask a Science Teacher: 250 Answers to Questions You’ve Always Had About How Everyday Stuff Really Works”; Copyright © Larry Scheckel, 2013. Available December 17 wherever books are sold.

Doctor knows breast: Microsoft working on a ‘smart bra’ to help stop emotional binge eating

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    A diagram of the prototype bra. (UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER/MICROSOFT RESEARCH.)

Put the Ben and Jerry’s down. Microsoft researchers have been developing a mood-sensing ‘smart bra’ that could prevent overeating when stressed.

Those who head straight to KFC when stressed, anxious, upset or worried will know the feelings of brief satisfaction followed by wallowing guilt. But this vicious cycle could be intervened before it even happens thanks to a ‘smart bra’ from Microsoft that offers “just-in-time-support for emotional eating”.

The ‘smart bra’ is fitted with sensors that monitor real-time bio-signals such as heart rate and respiration, which are key emotional signs Microsoft has identified prior to an emotional binge, and will intervene.

It then streams the data via Bluetooth to a mobile phone, alerting the wearer that the chance of stress-related eating is about to occur.

The study revealed those who were made aware of their eating habit are more likely to think twice about opening the fridge.

High stress can trigger emotional overeating in both women and men, although a Microsoft executive told Discovery News that it was mainly women who succumbed.

In a paper outlining the results of a pilot project involving four women who wore the prototype garments, researchers said information on stress levels delivered in a timely fashion “served as a health intervention to encourage the person to be more active or consume less food”.

One participant of the study noted: “I was eating without being aware of it, but by having to log both my eating habits and my emotions, I became aware of triggers for emotional eating, and also more aware of the health (or lack thereof) in my diet.”

While another stated: “I became more conscious when I was about to eat or drink and self-reflected on why I was consuming something.”

Why Microsoft chose a bra for their high-tech system is because  “the bra form-factor allowed us to collect EKG (electrocardiagram) near the heart,” the researchers stated. However the prototype was limited because its batteries only lasted for four hours at a time, they said.

“We conclude that building a wearable, physiological system (to combat overeating) is feasible.

However, we will continue to explore how to build a robust, real-world system that stands up to every day challenges with regards to battery life, comfortability, and being suitable for both men and women,” the researchers said.

In other news relating to the convergence of technology and undergarments, a Japanese toy manufacturer is reporting strong sales after releasing a series of underwear for mobile phones.

The snug rubber items fit over the base of a mobile phone, protecting the on switch from accidental pressings. They make a phone look less naked – and yet somehow more sexual – at the same time.

For more tech news and reviews visit News.com.au.

Blood vessels reorganize themselves after full face transplantation

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    CT angiography after face transplantation. Donor’s external carotid artery (pink) was successfully anastomosed to the recipient’s vessel (rectangular area). Branches distal to the ligation (white line) receive blood flow from collateral vessels (arrows). (BRIGHAM AND WOMEN’S HOSPITAL)

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    CT angiography after face transplantation. Recipient’s left lingual artery was ligated, but the portion distal to the ligation (rectangular area) was still enhanced via blood flow from the contralateral side (arrow). (BRIGHAM AND WOMEN’S HOSPITAL)

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    CT angiography before and after face transplantation. Donor’s facial artery (yellow) was successfully anastomosed—or reconnected—to the recipient’s vessel. (BRIGHAM AND WOMEN’S HOSPITAL)

As full face transplantation continues to become a more viable option for patients with severe facial disfigurations, doctors have learned more and more about the intricacies of this novel procedure.

Now, for the first time ever, researchers have discovered that in the months following the procedure, the blood vessels in the faces of transplant recipients are actually able to reorganize themselves.

Detailed in a study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), this “vascular reorganization” provides physicians with a better understanding of the biologic processes that occur during full face transplantation.

Still a relatively new procedure, full face transplants have only been available to patients within the past two years – the first successful operation in the United States was performed at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston in 2011. Since then, hospital specialists have performed face transplantations on three additional patients.

According to study author Dr. Frank Rybicki, the most important element required for a successful face transplantation is an adequate blood supply from the donor. During the procedure, surgeons must connect the patient’s major arteries and veins to those located in to the donor face – also called the facial allograft – in order to provide healthy circulation.

However, new blood vessel networks must development in the transplanted tissue in order for the surgery to succeed, and up until now, not much has been known about these vascular changes.

“We have to have the tissue perfuse, which is this connection of blood vessels from the patient to the cadaver,” Rybicki, director of the Applied Imaging Science Laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told FoxNews.com.   “Now that we’re a year out from the first patients [who had this procedure done], for the first time we can see those connections and map out the perfusion. And that reorganization of the blood vessels is very biologically interesting.”

For the study, Rybicki and his colleagues analyzed the blood vessels of three transplant patients one year after their surgeries.  The researchers used a special imaging technique, known as 320-detector row dynamic computed tomography angiography (CTA) to map out the patients’ facial allografts.

Through this imaging, they found that existing vessels in both the donor and recipient’s tissue had morphed and made new connections with each other – a process known as collateralization. Rybicki said this showed that there is an extensive vascular reorganization that occurs “in concert” with the larger vessels that are initially connected during surgery.

“For example, when you do a face transplant, you have to sever both vessels on each side of the tongue,” Rybicki said.  “But…there is such a strong genetic predilection to keep the tongue perfused, that even though we have to make these operative decisions – severing the lingual artery – the body finds a way to re-perfuse it.”

Rybicki said this study reveals just how critical the face has become in regards to the human body, noting that distinctive facial features have become so essential in how we identify ourselves and others.

“It means we’re hardwired to protect our face and our tongue in a very profound way,” Rybicki said. “Even when you put tissue back on there, the body knows it and the body reorganized.  We still use immunosuppressant drugs, but the blood vessels know to reorganize in a certain way.”

Notably, the researchers found that most of the new blood vessel networks came from vessels farther back in the head and toward the ears.  These findings could ultimately help physicians to create better assessment protocols, helping them determine which candidates are best suited for full face transplantation and which patients may have severe complications.

“There are an enormous number of patients that have severe facial injuries; we just don’t see them because they don’t come out of their house,” Rybicki said.  “The implications of this study are if those patients have the right vessels we know need to be reorganized, we can work with them.”