The late December quiet has given way to a post-holiday flurry of exciting research news, most of which I can’t tell you about until next week. But in the meantime, here’s our first weekly roundup for 2011 of the most interesting science and medical news around the web.
Tears for Fears
Scientists have discovered a multitude of ways by which animals communicate through chemical signals, such as those in the urine that dogs use to mark their territory and the path left by ants to guide their compatriots to food sources. But whether such pheromone signals exist in humans has been much more controversial. Martha McClintock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has published many papers showing evidence for communicative signals in human sweat that can influence menstrual cycling, mood, and brain function in other people. But the behavioral effects of human chemical signals have so far been small, producing nowhere near the sensational effects that marketers of “pheromone” perfumes claim on less than reputable websites.
But another mediator of chemical communication in humans may have been traced this week, in a paper published by Science on the ability of women’s tears to affect sexual interest in males. The Israeli study used a hilarious method of collecting their experimental substance, sitting women down in front of sad movies and catching their tears in test tubes (“We obtained negative-emotion tears from 2 donor women who watched sad movies in isolation,” the authors right in scientist-ese). The fluid was then placed under the nose of male subjects, who viewed pictures of women’s faces and rated their attractiveness. As described by Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science, the males’ sexual interest decreased when exposed to the tears, as compared to being exposed to a control of saline. Differences in brain activity and testosterone levels were also detected while men sniffed the tears of sadness.
Consulted by the New York Times, McClintock said the study “really broadens the possibilities of where signals are coming from,” but expressed skepticism that the tears’ effect would be restricted to sexual behavior. “I have no doubt that it affected sexuality as they report, but I would be very surprised if it doesn’t turn out to affect other emotions in other contexts. Maybe it’s affecting some deeper, more fundamental psychological process that drives the effect that they’re reporting,” she told the newspaper. Other critics have asked whether the chemical signal lies in the tears themselves, or are collected by the tear from the skin as they roll down a subject’s cheeks. The nature of the chemical still remains to be found, but the evidence suggests another entry in the previously hidden chemical vocabulary of humans.
Fraudulent Science, Human Cost
Last year, the infamous 1998 Lancet paper purporting to show a link between the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine and childhood autism was finally retracted after years of criticism for biased selection of subjects and unethical behavior. But the research, led by Andrew Wakefield, went beyond scientific mistakes to fraudulent falsification of data, a new report from the British Medical Journal released this week discovered. Investigative reporter Brian Deer found that Wakefield, who was being receiving payments from a lawyer seeking to file a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers before he started the study, changed the timeline of autistic symptoms appearing in patients to make it look more like vaccines were the cause. The article is a rigorous and thorough deconstruction of a scientific fraud that has had concrete consequences for children around the world – in the 12 years since the article was published, measles cases have spiked in England and America as vaccination rates have dropped, and other vaccination-sensitive diseases such as whooping cough have also made a resurgence.
At last year’s BIO conference, many scientists and biomedical companies expressed frustration about the slow pace of FDA approval for experimental therapies and devices and how it hinders patient access to new treatments. Richard Epstein, professor of law at the University of Chicago, echoes that argument with his piece on the history of insulin and its quick path to market in the 1920′s for the journal Defining Ideas. It’s an interesting example, but also a case where an experimental therapeutic Hail Mary worked. In light of the autism news above, it’s hard not to think of the scam artists marketing industrial chemicals like OSR #1 to desperate parents of autistic children; a practice that was ended by the FDA after Chicago Tribune articles by Trine Tsouderos. The slow arm of the regulatory law is still very often a good thing.
One of the priority research areas of our colleagues at Argonne Research Laboratory has been the development of better batteries that could be used for cleaner energy. A big step in that mission was made this week when a deal was signed between Argonne and LG Chem to make new, lighter and more powerful lithium batteries for GM’s electric car, the Volt. The Wall Street Journal and Wired offered coverage of the deal.
The font comic sans may be one of the most hated things on the internet, but as Jonah Lehrer describes at his Frontal Cortex blog, unusual fonts like the dreaded comic sans may help students retain reading material.