Cooling Underwear Puts Sperm On Ice

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The briefs, called Snowballs, began last year as a Kickstarter campaign by Joshua Shoemake.

The idea began with several couples struggling to conceive. One couple had a miscarriage. They were told to give up and try adopting. Then a gynecologist told them that elevated scrotal temperature can be a major cause of infertility in men, according to the company.

Sick of holding melting freezer bags on their crotches, the guys worked on a design for organic cotton boxer-briefs with space for a “SnowWedge” gel pack made from carboxymethyl cellulose sodium that could stay cool for at least 30 minutes. Using the briefs helped one of the couples have a baby girl, the company said.

http://news.discovery.com/tech/gear-and-gadgets/cooling-underwear-puts-sperm-on-ice-140110.htm

Thansk to Dr. Lutter for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

Dalls Cowboys’ emergency quarterback Jon Kitna will donate his pay to the high school where he’s teaching math.

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by Mark Memmott

Whether or not you like the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, this news may warm your heart: Jon Kitna, who is coming out of retirement to be the team’s emergency quarterback on Sunday, plans to donate his $53,000 paycheck from the game to the Tacoma, Wash., high school where he now teaches math and coaches football.

According to the Dallas Morning News:

“Much has been made of the Cowboys signing high school math teacher Jon Kitna out of retirement to figure into their quarterback puzzle against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. Almost every reference has mentioned the quarterback, who retired from the Cowboys after the 2011 season, will earn about $53,000 for his Christmas week’s work.

“Only Kitna, 41, is not keeping the money. It didn’t come up in his Christmas Day media scrum in the locker room. But later, while relaxing on a locker room couch and reconnecting with radio play-by-play voice Brad Sham, Kitna said he would be donating his NFL check to his school [Lincoln High in Tacoma]. He also told several teammates.”

Kitna has been pressed into service by the team because a herniated disc may keep starting quarterback Tony Romo from playing. Romo’s backup, Kyle Orton, is expected to start instead. Kitna has been tapped to be Orton’s backup and he’s helping at practices this week while Romo rests.

Sunday night’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles is important: Whichever team wins will get into the playoffs. NBC-TV is the broadcaster.

Lincoln High, according to The Seattle Times, is where Kitna went to high school. He guided his team “to an 8-2 record this season, but the Abes lost to eventual state runner-up Eastside Catholic in the district playoffs. Kitna is 13-7 in two seasons as head coach.”

He retired after the 2011 season. Kitna’s last three years were with the Cowboys — mostly as Romo’s backup. Earlier in his career, he had been a starter with the Seattle Seahawks, Cincinnati Bengals and Detroit Lions.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/12/26/257372387/cowboys-emergency-qb-kitna-will-give-away-his-pay

Thanks to Dr. Lutter for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

Bonobos facing extinction

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The rare Bonobo ape – formerly known as the pygmy chimpanzee – faces a serious menace to its continued survival due to the activities of humans, scientists say.

The bonobo is perhaps most widely known for being one of the few species apart from some humans (and as it turns out, fruitbats) to routinely perform fellatio as part of sexual activity. A new scientific study reveals, however, that the fun-loving apes’ very survival is seriously threatened by predatory humans.

“Bonobos that live in closer proximity to human activity and to points of human access are more vulnerable,” says Dr Janet Nackoney, a professor at Maryland uni. “Our results point to the need for more places where bonobos can be safe … which is an enormous challenge in the [war-torn Congo, which is the only place the bonobos are found].”

A press release issued to highlight Nackoney and her colleagues’ study says:

The bonobo is smaller in size and more slender in build than the common chimpanzee. The great ape’s social structure is complex and matriarchal. Unlike the common chimpanzee, bonobos establish social bonds and diffuse tension or aggression with sexual behaviors.

It seems that human aggression is a major problem for the bonobo, which perhaps understandably “avoids areas of high human activity …

“As little as 28 percent of the bonobo’s range remains suitable,” the press announcement adds.

“For bonobos to survive over the next 100 years or longer, it is extremely important that we understand the extent of their range, their distribution, and drivers of that distribution,” says Ashley Vosper of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Bonobos are probably the least understood great ape in Africa, so this paper is pivotal in increasing our knowledge and understanding of this beautiful and charismatic animal.”

Despite the bonobos’ somewhat louche reputation, it seems that there’s nothing salacious about local humans’ interest in them: but the people of the area do hunt apes and monkeys for food, and destruction or partial destruction of forest by farmers is also a major turn-off for the cheery apes. Scientists hope that more terrain suitable for bonobos to live in can be classified as national park – or perhaps discovered within existing parks or otherwise-protected areas.

“The future of the bonobo will depend on the close collaboration of many partners working towards the conservation of this iconic ape,” says Dr Liz Williamson of the International Union for Conservation and Nature Primate Specialist Group.

The new study is published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/11/27/rare_fellatiogiving_apes_face_extinction_from_interaction_with_humans/

Thanks to Dr. Lutter for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

Scientists discover why the chicken lost its penis.

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Researchers have now unraveled the genetics behind why most male birds don’t have penises, just published in Current Biology.
[Ana Herrera et al, Developmental Basis of Phallus Reduction During Bird Evolution]

There are almost 10,000 species of birds and only around 3 percent of them have a penis. These include ducks, geese and swans, and large flightless birds like ostriches and emus. In fact, some ducks have helical penises that are longer than their entire bodies. But eagles, flamingos, penguins and albatrosses have completely lost their penises. So have wrens, gulls, cranes, owls, pigeons, hummingbirds and woodpeckers. Chickens still have penises, but barely—they’re tiny nubs that are no good for penetrating anything.

In all of these species, males still fertilise a female’s eggs by sending sperm into her body, but without any penetration. Instead, males and females just mush their genital openings together and he transfers sperm into her in a maneuver called the cloacal kiss.

To get to the root of this puzzle, researchers compared the embryos of chickens and ducks. Both types of birds start to develop a penis. But in chickens, the genital tubercle shrinks before the little guys hatch. And it’s because of a gene called Bmp4.

“There are lots of examples of animal groups that evolved penises, but I can think of only a bare handful that subsequently lost them,” says Diane Kelly from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. “Ornithologists have tied themselves in knots trying to explain why an organ that gives males an obvious selective advantage in so many different animal species disappeared in most birds. But it’s hard to address a question on why something happens when you don’t know much about how it happens.”

That’s where Martin Cohn came in. He wanted to know the how. His team at the University of Florida studies how limbs and genitals develop across the animal kingdom, from the loss of legs in pythons to genital deformities in humans. “In a lab that thinks about genital development, one takes notice when a species that reproduces by internal fertilization lacks a penis,” says graduate student Ana Herrera.

By comparing the embryos of a Pekin duck and a domestic chicken, Herrera and other team members showed that their genitals start developing in the same way. A couple of small swellings fuse together into a stub called the genital tubercle, which gradually gets bigger over the first week or so. (The same process produces a mammal’s penis.)

In ducks, the genital tubercle keeps on growing into a long coiled penis, but in the chicken, it stops around day 9, while it’s still small. Why? Cohn expected to find that chickens are missing some critical molecule. Instead, his team found that all the right penis-growing genes are switched on in the chicken’s tubercle, and its cells are certainly capable of growing.

It never develops a full-blown penis because, at a certain point, its cells start committing mass suicide. This type of ‘programmed cell death’ occurs throughout the living world and helps to carve away unwanted body parts—for example, our hands have fingers because the cells between them die when we’re embryos. For the chicken, it means no penis. “It was surprising to learn that outgrowth fails not due to absence of a critical growth factor, but due to presence of a cell death factor,” says Cohn.

His team confirmed this pattern in other species, including an alligator (crocodilians are the closest living relatives of birds). In the greylag goose, emu and alligator, the tubercle continues growing into a penis, with very little cell death. In the quail, a member of the same order as chickens, the tubercle’s cells also experience a wave of death before the organ can get big.

This wave is driven by a protein called Bmp4, which is produced along the entire length of the chicken’s tubercle, but over much less of the duck’s. When Cohn’s team soaked up this protein, the tubercle’s cells stopped dying and carried on growing. So, it’s entirely possible for a chicken to grow a penis; it’s just that Bmp4 stops this from happening. Conversely, adding extra Bmp protein to a duck tubercle could stop it from growing into its full spiralling glory, forever fixing it as a chicken-esque stub.

Bmp proteins help to control the shape and size of many body parts. They’re behind the loss of wings in soldier ants and teeth of birds. Meanwhile, bats blocked these proteins to expand the membranes between their fingers and evolve wings.

They also affect the genitals of many animals. In ducks and geese, they create the urethra, a groove in the penis that sperm travels down (“If you think about it, that’s like having your urethra melt your penis,” says Kelly.) In mice, getting rid of the proteins that keep Bmp in check leads to tiny penises. Conversely, getting rid of the Bmp proteins leads to a grossly enlarged (and almost tumour-like) penis.

Penises have been lost several times in the evolution of birds. Cohn’s team have only compared two groups—the penis-less galliforms (chickens, quails and pheasants) and the penis-equipped anseriforms (swans, ducks and geese). What about the oldest group of birds—the ratites, like ostriches or emus? All of them have penises except for the kiwis, which lost theirs. And what about the largest bird group, the neoaves, which includes the vast majority of bird species? All of them are penis-less.

Maybe, all of these groups lost their penis in different ways. To find out, Herrera is now looking at how genitals develop in the neoaves. Other teams will no doubt follow suit. “The study will now allow us to more deeply explore other instances of penis loss and reduction in birds, to see whether there is more than one way to lose a penis,” says Patricia Brennan from the University of Massachussetts in Amherst.

And in at least one case, what was lost might have been regained. The cracids—an group of obscure South American galliforms—have penises unlike their chicken relatives. It might have been easy for them to re-evolve these body parts, since the galliforms still have all the genetic machinery for making a penis.

We now know how chickens lost their penises, but we don’t know why a male animal that needs to put sperm inside a female would lose the organ that makes this possible. Cohn’s study hints at one possibility—it could just be a side effect of other bodily changes. Bmp4 and other related proteins are involved in the evolution of many bird body parts, including the transition from scales to feathers, the loss of teeth, and variations in beak size. Perhaps one of these transformations changed the way Bmp4 is used in the genitals and led to shrinking penises.

There are many other possible explanations. Maybe a penis-less bird finds it easier to fly, runs a smaller risk of passing on sexually-transmitted infections, or is better at avoiding predators because he mates more quickly. Females might even be responsible. Male ducks often force themselves upon their females but birds without an obvious phallus can’t do that. They need the female’s cooperation in order to mate. So perhaps females started preferring males with smaller penises, so that they could exert more choice over whom fathered their chicks. Combinations of these explanations may be right, and different answers may apply to different groups.

Thanks to Dr. Lutter for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

http://www.oddly-even.com/2013/06/06/how-chickens-lost-their-penises-and-ducks-kept-theirs_/

http://news.yahoo.com/why-did-chicken-lose-penis-165408163.html

Kelp gulls may be responsible for the worst-ever Right Whale die-off

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Scientists still don’t know why hundreds of baby southern right whales are turning up dead around Patagonia, a decade after observers first saw signs of the worst die-off on record for the species, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

With no evidence of infectious diseases or deadly toxins in whale tissue samples, scientists are scrambling to determine a cause of death. Some are even pointing a finger at blubber-eating birds.

The whales come to the peaceful Atlantic bays around Peninsula Valdes along Argentina’s Patagonian Coast to give birth and raise their young. At least 605 dead right whales have been counted in the region since 2003, WCS officials say. Of those, 538 were newborn calves. Last year, the mortality event was especially severe, with a record-breaking 116 whale deaths, 113 of them calves.

“In 2012 we lost nearly one-third of all calves born at the Peninsula,” said Mariano Sironi, scientific director of the Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas in Argentina. “Southern right whales have their first calf when they are nine years old on average. This means that it won’t be until a decade from now that we will see a significant reduction in the number of calves born, as all of the female calves that died will not be contributing any new offspring to the population,” Sironi, who is also an advisor to the Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program, added in a statement.

Sironi and colleague Vicky Rowntree, who is co-director of the monitoring program, have studied a strange phenomena that could be stressing southern right whales. They say kelp gulls at Peninsula Valdes land on the backs of the cetaceans to eat their skin and blubber.

“The attacks are very painful and cause large, deep lesions, particularly on the backs of young 2-6 week-old calves,” the researchers said in a statement from WCS. “This harassment can last for hours at a time. As a result, right whale mothers and their calves are expending much precious energy during a time of year when mothers are fasting and at a site where little to no food is available to replenish fat reserves.”

The situation is discouraging for a species that had made a significant comeback since its population was depleted by the whaling industry.

“The southern right whale population is still only a small fraction of its original size, and now we have reason to worry about its recovery,” Rowntree said.

Though the southern right whale is not listed as endangered, conservationists warn that the species’ sister populations could go extinct if hit with a mysterious die-off on this scale. For instance, there are thought to be just about 500 North Atlantic right whales remaining.

Thanks to Dr. Lutter for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

http://news.yahoo.com/worst-ever-whale-die-off-continues-puzzle-110222538.html

Litterbugs Beware: Turning Found DNA Into Portraits

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Heather Dewey-Hagborg was sitting in a therapy session a while ago and noticed a painting on the wall. The glass on the frame was cracked, and lodged in the crack was a single hair. She couldn’t take her eyes off it. “I just became obsessed with thinking about whose hair that was, and what they might look like, and what they might be like,” she says.

On the subway ride home, she noticed all of the insignificant things people left behind — a dropped cigarette butt, a chewed-up piece of gum. Like the hair stuck in the frame, she wondered how much genetic material might have been tossed away with the trash. So Dewey-Hagborg started collecting these forgotten “artifacts,” as she calls them, and bringing them back to a lab to analyze their embedded genetic material.

Yet it might seem Dewey-Hagborg would be more comfortable in a studio than a laboratory. She’s an artist; a doctoral student in Information Art at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. For her most recent project, though, much of the creative process takes place in front of a centrifuge, wearing latex gloves, deep in the map of the human genome.

In short, Dewey-Hagborg extracts DNA from these samples of trash and turns that information from code into life-sized 3-D facial portraits resembling the person who left the sample behind. She can code for eye color, eye and nose width, skin tone, hair color and more. She starts by cutting up her sample, sometimes the end of a cigarette, thin slices of a chewed wad of gum, sometimes hair, and incubates the sample with chemicals to distill it into pure DNA. She then takes that DNA, and matches the code with different traits on the genome related to the way human faces look.

“That’s a very tiny subset of all of the things that we know about the entire mapping of the human genome, ” she says.

Next, she sends the DNA to a sequencing company that sends her back a text file full of A, C, Ts and Gs — the four nucleic acid bases that DNA is made out of. She then reads that information in a program she designed herself, translating the code into traits, then using those traits to build a 3-D model of a face. Dewey-Hagborg can determine ethnicity, gender, even a tendency to be overweight.

But even all of that can’t give her the whole picture. Much of the information is still missing, and Dewey-Hagborg has to fill in the gaps. She compares that part of the work to a sketch artist. “This person is more likely to be overweight, to have pale skin, to have freckles, blue eyes, how do I interpret this?”

People often ask her how accurate the portraits are. Of course, she has no way of knowing. After all, she collects these items from anonymous sources. But she did start off with her own portrait based on her own DNA. She exhibited that at an art and technology space in Chelsea.

“Half of the people would say, ‘Wow! It looks just like you!'” she says. “The other half would say, ‘Wow! It looks nothing like you!” The portraits are subjective in a big way, she acknowledges, but says much of the information is solidly based in data.

Though she started this project in part to “open up the conversation about genetic surveillance,” she says, it’s taken on another purpose. Right now she’s working with the Delaware medical examiner’s office to try to identify a woman in a 20-year-old unsolved case by using some of the victim’s remains to build a 3-D portrait of her. She’s six weeks away from finishing the process, when investigators will, for the first time, have some idea of what the victim looked like before her death.

http://www.npr.org/2013/05/12/183363361/litterbugs-beware-turning-found-dna-into-portraits

Thanks to Dr. Lutter for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

Retired Porn Star to Become First Adult Actress in Space

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Coco Brown, who hasn’t made an adult film in a decade, has been training for her flight.

By Jason Koebler

Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space. Sally Ride was the first woman in space. Dennis Tito was the first tourist in space. And sometime next year, the human race will eclipse another benchmark, with Coco Brown possibly becoming the first porn star in space.

Brown made headlines earlier this year when Space Expedition Corporation, a German company, announced that the retired porn star had signed up to be on one of its first sub-orbital spaceflights in March 2014. Brown, who hasn’t starred in an adult film since 2003, says she’s quit the industry and is entirely focused on her mission.

“Performing in space isn’t something I ever thought about when I was deciding to do this. I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is something really cool.’ I didn’t think ‘I’m going to try to have sex in space or perform in space,'” she says.

Brown says the opportunity arose when she was invited to a “space lunch” in Berlin, but she quickly discovered that the meeting was being held to discuss the possibility of space tourism.

“I thought they were going to be talking about the universe or something with astronomy or whatever, but then they started talking about flights to space,” she says. “I spent four months deciding whether or not I wanted to do this. The company called me a few times and finally I decided to do it.”

Brown has already completed a zero gravity flight and has begun training in Cape Canaveral. She has several more training missions coming up over the next few weeks. Since agreeing to take the trip, which costs $100,000, Brown says she may be in for more than she bargained for.

“I’m not worried about the fact of actually going to space, but when we come back, NASA wants to do a lot of observations and studies and things,” she says. “We’re some of the first people who are going to space without a specific job to do, so they were telling us all these [emergency contingency plans] and things like that, that made me wonder, ‘Why are they telling us this stuff?’ That kind of thing makes me worry.”

A spokesperson with NASA says they have not worked with Brown and have no plans to train her or conduct experiments on her when she returns.

“NASA does not fly space tourists and does not train them. Nor is NASA involved in postflight studies and observations,” the agency says.

Because she hasn’t performed in a decade, Brown says she wasn’t ready for the media blitz that has followed the announcement. Perhaps predictably, a lot of media focus has been put on whether she’ll make the world’s first porno movie filmed in space. That, she says, depends on what type of space suit she’s given. “They’re always giving us a new suit—I assume the one we use to go to space will be different. I haven’t asked about a special suit,” she says.

Despite the attention, she says she’s focused on being the best astronaut she can be.

“I haven’t done a movie since 2003, so when I decided to do this, the thought of performing in space didn’t even cross my mind. I have nothing against performing and would do it if the right offer comes along,” she says. “But now, my job is to train to be an astronaut.”

http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/02/14/retired-porn-star-to-become-first-adult-actress-in-space

Thanks to Dr. Lutter for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

Dog’s dinner was key to domestication

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Dogs now have an excuse for waiting under the dinner table: domestication may have adapted them to thrive on the starch-filled foods that their owners eat.

A study published in Nature found that dogs possess genes for digesting starches, setting them apart from their carnivore cousins — wolves.

The authors say the results support the contentious idea that dogs became domesticated by lingering around human settlements. “While it’s possible that humans might have gone out to take wolf pups and domesticated them, it may have been more attractive for dogs to start eating from the scrap heaps as modern agriculture started,” says Kerstin Lindblad-Toh, a geneticist at Uppsala University in Sweden, who led the work.

Canine-domestication researchers agree that all dogs, from beagles to border collies, are the smaller, more sociable and less aggressive descendants of wolves. But neither the time nor the location of the first domestication is known: fossils place the earliest dogs anywhere from 33,000 years ago in Siberia to 11,000 years ago in Israel, whereas DNA studies of modern dogs put domestication at least 10,000 years ago, and in either Southeast Asia or the Middle East. Many researchers believe that dogs were domesticated more than once, and that even after domestication, they occasionally interbred with wild wolves.

Lindblad-Toh and her team catalogued the genetic changes involved in domestication by looking for differences between the genomes of 12 wolves and 60 dogs from 14 different breeds. Their search identified 36 regions of the genome that set dogs apart from wolves — but are not responsible for variation between dog breeds.

Nineteen of those regions contained genes with a role in brain development or function. These genes, says Lindblad-Toh, may explain why dogs are so much more friendly than wolves. Surprisingly, the team also found ten genes that help dogs to digest starches and break down fats. Lab work suggested that changes in three of those genes make dogs better than meat-eating wolves at splitting starches into sugars and then absorbing those sugars.

Most humans have also evolved to more easily digest starches. Lindblad-Toh suggests that the rise of farming, beginning around 10,000 years ago in the Middle East, led to the adaptations in both species. “This is a striking sign of parallel evolution,” she says. “It really shows how dogs and humans have evolved together to be able to eat starch.”

However, Greger Larson, an evolutionary archaeologist at Durham University, UK, very much doubts that genes involved in digesting starches catalysed domestication, pointing out that the earliest dog fossils predate the dawn of agriculture. His team plans to analyse DNA preserved in dog fossils, to discover when the genetic variations involved in domestication first emerged.

Robert Wayne, a geneticist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is also studying ancient dog genomes, says that starch metabolism could have been an important adaptation for dogs. However, he thinks that such traits probably developed after behavioural changes that emerged when humans first took dogs in, back when most of our forebears still hunted large game.

Nevertheless, the study adds to evidence that dogs should not eat the same food as wolves, says Wayne, who points out that dog food is rich in carbohydrates and low in protein compared with plain meat. “Every day I get an email from a dog owner who asks, should they feed their dog like a wolf,” says Wayne. “I think this paper answers that question: no.”

http://www.nature.com/news/dog-s-dinner-was-key-to-domestication-1.12280

Thanks to Dr. Lutter for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

‘Extinct’ whale found: Odd-looking pygmy whale traced back 2 million years

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The pygmy right whale, a mysterious and elusive creature that rarely comes to shore, is the last living relative of an ancient group of whales long believed to be extinct, a new study suggests.

The findings, published Tuesday, Dec. 18, in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, may help to explain why the enigmatic marine mammals look so different from any other living whale.

“The living pygmy right whale is, if you like, a remnant, almost like a living fossil,” said Felix Marx, a paleontologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand. “It’s the last survivor of quite an ancient lineage that until now no one thought was around.”

The relatively diminutive pygmy right whale, which grows to just 21 feet (6.5 meters) long, lives out in the open ocean. The elusive marine mammals inhabit the Southern Hemisphere and have only been spotted at sea a few dozen times. As a result, scientists know almost nothing about the species’ habits or social structure.

The strange creature’s arched, frownlike snout makes it look oddly different from other living whales. DNA analysis suggested pygmy right whales diverged from modern baleen whales such as the blue whale and the humpback whale between 17 million and 25 million years ago. However, the pygmy whales’ snouts suggested they were more closely related to the family of whales that includes the bowhead whale. Yet there were no studies of fossils showing how the pygmy whale had evolved, Marx said.

To understand how the pygmy whale fit into the lineage of whales, Marx and his colleagues carefully analyzed the skull bones and other fossil fragments from pygmy right whales and several other ancient cetaceans.

The pygmy whale’s skull most closely resembled that of an ancient family of whales called cetotheres that were thought to have gone extinct around 2 million years ago, the researchers found. Cetotheres emerged about 15 million years ago and once occupied oceans across the globe.

The findings help explain how pygmy whales evolved and may also help shed light on how these ancient “lost” whales lived. The new information is also a first step in reconstructing the ancient lineage all the way back to the point when all members of this group first diverged, he said.

http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2012/1219/Extinct-whale-found-Odd-looking-pygmy-whale-traced-back-2-million-years

Thanks to Dr. Lutter for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

Controversial surgical treatment for addiction burns away the brain’s pleasure center

 

How far should doctors go in attempting to cure addiction? In China, some physicians are taking the most extreme measures. By destroying parts of the brain’s “pleasure centers” in heroin addicts and alcoholics, these neurosurgeons hope to stop drug cravings. But damaging the brain region involved in addictive desires risks permanently ending the entire spectrum of natural longings and emotions, including the ability to feel joy.

In 2004, the Ministry of Health in China banned this procedure due to lack of data on long term outcomes and growing outrage in Western media over ethical issues about whether the patients were fully aware of the risks.

However, some doctors were allowed to continue to perform it for research purposes—and recently, a Western medical journal even published a new study of the results. In 2007, The Wall Street Journal detailed the practice of a physician who claimed he performed 1000 such procedures to treat mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia and epilepsy, after the ban in 2004; the surgery for addiction has also since been done on at least that many people.

The November publication has generated a passionate debate in the scientific community over whether such research should be published or kept outside the pages of reputable scientific journals, where it may find undeserved legitimacy and only encourage further questionable science to flourish.

The latest study is the third published since 2003 in Stereotactic and Functional Neurosurgery, which isn’t the only journal chronicling results from the procedure, which is known as ablation of the nucleus accumbens. In October, the journal World Neurosurgery also published results from the same researchers, who are based at Tangdu Hospital in Xi’an.

The authors, led by Guodong Gao, claim that the surgery is “a feasible method for alleviating psychological dependence on opiate drugs.” At the same time, they report that more than half of the 60 patients had lasting side effects, including memory problems and loss of motivation. Within five years, 53% had relapsed and were addicted again to opiates, leaving 47% drug free.

(MORE: Addicted: Why We Get Hooked)

Conventional treatment only results in significant recovery in about 30-40% of cases, so the procedure apparently improves on that, but experts do not believe that such a small increase in benefit is worth the tremendous risk the surgery poses.  Even the most successful brain surgeries carry risk of infection, disability and death since opening the skull and cutting brain tissue for any reason is both dangerous and unpredictable. And the Chinese researchers report that 21% of the patients they studied experienced memory deficits after the surgery and 18% had “weakened motivation,” including at least one report of lack of sexual desire. The authors claim, however, that “all of these patients reported that their [adverse results] were tolerable.” In addition, 53% of patients had a change in personality, but the authors describe the majority of these changes as “mildness oriented,” presumably meaning that they became more compliant. Around 7%, however, became more impulsive.

The surgery is actually performed while patients are awake in order to minimize the chances of destroying regions necessary for sensation, consciousness or movement.  Surgeons use heat to kill cells in small sections of both sides of the brain’s nucleus accumbens.  That region is saturated with neurons containing dopamine and endogenous opioids, which are involved in pleasure and desire related both to drugs and to ordinary experiences like eating, love and sex.

(MORE: A Drug to End Drug Addiction)

In the U.S. and the U.K., reports the Wall Street Journal, around two dozen stereotactic ablations are performed each year, but only in the most intractable cases of depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder and after extensive review by institutional review boards and intensive discussions with the patient, who must acknowledge the risks. Often, a different brain region is targeted, not the nucleus accumbens. Given the unpredictable and potentially harmful consequences of the procedure, experts are united in their condemnation of using the technique to treat addictions. “To lesion this region that is thought to be involved in all types of motivation and pleasure risks crippling a human being,” says Dr. Charles O’Brien, head of the Center for Studies of Addiction at the University of Pennsylvania.

David Linden, professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins and author of a recent book about the brain’s pleasure systems calls the surgery “horribly misguided.”  He says “This treatment will almost certainly render the subjects unable to feel pleasure from a wide range of experiences, not just drugs of abuse.”

But some neurosurgeons see it differently. Dr. John Adler, professor emeritus of neurosurgery at Stanford University, collaborated with the Chinese researchers on the publication and is listed as a co-author.  While he does not advocate the surgery and did not perform it, he believes it can provide valuable information about how the nucleus accumbens works, and how best to attempt to manipulate it. “I do think it’s worth learning from,” he says. ” As far as I’m concerned, ablation of the nucleus accumbens makes no sense for anyone.  There’s a very high complication rate. [But] reporting it doesn’t mean endorsing it. While we should have legitimate ethical concerns about anything like this, it is a bigger travesty to put our heads in the sand and not be willing to publish it,” he says.

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Dr. Casey Halpern, a neurosurgery resident at the University of Pennsylvania makes a similar case. He notes that German surgeons have performed experimental surgery involving placing electrodes in the same region to treat the extreme lack of pleasure and motivation associated with otherwise intractable depression.  “That had a 60% success rate, much better than [drugs like Prozac],” he says. Along with colleagues from the University of Magdeburg in Germany, Halpern has just published a paper in the Proceedings of the New York Academy of Sciences calling for careful experimental use of DBS in the nucleus accumbens to treat addictions, which have failed repeatedly to respond to other approaches. The paper cites the Chinese surgery data and notes that addiction itself carries a high mortality risk.

DBS, however, is quite different from ablation.  Although it involves the risk of any brain surgery, the stimulation itself can be turned off if there are negative side effects, while surgical destruction of brain tissue is irreversible. That permanence—along with several other major concerns — has ethicists and addiction researchers calling for a stop to the ablation surgeries, and for journals to refuse to publish related studies.

Harriet Washington, author of Medical Apartheid:  The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, argues that by publishing the results of unethical studies, scientists are condoning the questionable conditions under which the trials are conducted. “When medical journals publish research that violates the profession’sethical guidelines, this serves not only to sanction such abuses, but to encourage them,” she says. “In doing so, this practice encourages a relaxing of moral standards that threatens all patients and subjects, but especially  the medically vulnerable.”

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Shi-Min Fang, a Chinese biochemist who became a freelance journalist and recently won the journal Nature‘s Maddox prize for his exposes of widespread fraud in Chinese research, has revealed some of the subpar scientific practices behind research conducted in China, facing death threats and, as the New York Times reported, a beating with a hammer. He agrees that publishing such research only perpetuates the unethical practices. Asked by TIME to comment on the addiction surgery studies, Fang writes that publishing the research, particularly in western journals, “would encourage further unethical research, particularly in China where rewards for publication in international journals are high.”

While he doesn’t have the expertise to comment specifically on the ablation data, he says “the results of clinical research in China are very often fabricated. I suspect that the approvals by Ethics Committee mentioned in these papers were made up to meet publication requirement. I also doubt if the patients were really informed in detail about the nature of the study.” Fang also notes that two of the co-authors of the paper are advertising on the internet in Chinese, offering the surgery at a cost of 35,000 renminbi, about $5,600.  That’s more than the average annual income in China, which is about $5,000.

Given the available evidence, in fact, it’s hard to find a scientific justification for even studying the technique in people at all. Carl Hart, associate professor of psychology at Columbia University and author of the leading college textbook on psychoactive drugs, says animal studies suggest the approach may ultimately fail as an effective treatment for addiction; a 1984 experiment, for example, showed that destroying the nucleus accumbens in rats does not permanently stop them from taking opioids like heroin and later research found that it similarly doesn’t work for curbing cocaine cravings. Those results alone should discourage further work in humans. “These data are clear,” he says, “If you are going to take this drastic step, you damn well better know all of the animal literature.” [Disclosure:  Hart and I have worked on a book project together].

(MORE: Top 10 Medical Breakthroughs of 2012)

Moreover, in China, where addiction is so demonized that execution has been seen as an appropriate punishment and where the most effective known treatment for heroin addiction— methadone or buprenorphine maintenance— is illegal, it’s highly unlikely that addicted people could give genuinely informed consent for any brain surgery, let alone one that risks losing the ability to feel pleasure. And even if all of the relevant research suggested that ablating the nucleus accumbens prevented animals from seeking drugs, it would be hard to tell from rats or even primates whether the change was due to an overall reduction in motivation and pleasure or to a beneficial reduction in desiring just the drug itself.

There is no question that addiction can be difficult to treat, and in the most severe cases, where patients have suffered decades of relapses and failed all available treatments multiple times, it may make sense to consider treatments that carry significant risks, just as such dangers are accepted in fighting suicidal depression or cancer.  But in the ablation surgery studies, some of the participants were reportedly as young as 19 years old and had only been addicted for three years.  Addiction research strongly suggests that such patients are likely to recover even without treatment, making the risk-benefit ratio clearly unacceptable.

The controversy highlights the tension between the push for innovation and the reality of risk. Rules on informed consent didn’t arise from fears about theoretical abuses:  they were a response to the real scientific horrors of the Holocaust. And ethical considerations become especially important when treating a condition like addiction, which is still seen by many not as an illness but as a moral problem to be solved by punishment.  Scientific innovation is the goal, but at what price?
Read more: http://healthland.time.com/2012/12/13/controversial-surgery-for-addiction-burns-away-brains-pleasure-center/#ixzz2ExzobWQq

Thanks to Dr. Lutter for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.