Alcohol, Retinol and a 50-Year Quest for the Male Pill

Last Sunday, the day before the world’s population hit 7 billion, I went to a scientific meeting on the future of contraception.

I had expected to hear, and did hear, about a slew of labs trying to develop a birth control pill for men. What I did not expect: one pill was shown to work in men more than 50 years ago.

In the late 1950s, researchers from the University of Oregon and University of Washington tested drugs called ‘bis(dichloroacetyl) diamines’ on inmates from the Oregon State Penitentiary.* The scientists doled out one of three pills — dubbed Win 13,099, Win 17,416 and Win 18,446 — to 26 volunteers once or twice a day for up to 54 weeks, and measured the men’s sperm counts along the way.

The results were stunning: the compounds reduced the amount of sperm in the men’s semen, and sometimes completely wiped it out. The pills didn’t affect libido, and the only reported side effect was bloating and gas. What’s more, within a few weeks of stopping treatment, sperm counts went back up. It was, perhaps, the horny grail: reversible birth control for men, no rubber required.

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The Last Word on Nothing, November 2011.

Motor Problems in Autism Move into Research Focus

Infant research dating back to the 1960s has shown that motor skills, including reaching, grasping objects, crawling and walking, help infants learn basic social and communicative behaviors.

Puzzlingly, motor impairments in autism historically have been neglected, at least in part because they’re not part of the diagnostic criteria for the disorder. In the past yearhowever, studies of infants who have a higher-than-normal risk of developing the disorder have brought this topic to the forefront.

This work, some of which is unpublished, suggests that children with autism have a range of motor issues — such as head lag, floppy arms and difficulty sitting up — beginning in the first few months of life.

These early motor difficulties could make it difficult for babies to focus their eyes on objects, and, in turn, could hinder reaching movements. “And that makes it harder to get objects and share them with people. So it all kind of cascades,” says Jana Iverson, associate professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has shown, for example, that children with language impairments have poor motor skills.

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SFARI, November 2011.

Cultures of Trust

One day, around the time the United States invaded Iraq, Paola Sapienza was browsing a wine store near her home in Evanston, Illinois. She noticed something odd: all of the French wines were on sale. When she asked the sales clerk why, he told her, “These days, Americans don’t like anything French.” France had loudly opposed military action in Iraq, and everybody was buzzing about it.

The experience got Sapienza, a professor of finance at the Kellogg School of Management, thinking—just how much do cultural biases affect the way goods are traded?

As it turns out, quite a lot, according to a study of European countries that she published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics with longtime collaborators Luigi Guiso, a professor at the European University Institute in Italy, and Luigi Zingales, a professor at the University of Chicago. This trio of Italians found that the extent to which people trust citizens of another country plays a surprisingly large role in how much countries trade with each other and invest in one another.

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Kellogg Insight, November 2011.

Autistics Speak

A year ago, an Australian group launched an autism awareness and fundraising event called Communication Shutdown. The idea was simple: Neurotypical people would ignore social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter for the entire day, to simulate and show support for people with autism who have trouble communicating. Celebrities such as astronaut Buzz Aldrin, actress Fran Drescher, and animal scientist and autism advocate Temple Grandin were all on board.

But Corina Lynn Becker, an adult with autism who has a blog, wasn’t at all happy about it.

“A non-Autistic person still [has] the capability to text on their phones, and speak verbally, and so would not be totally comprehending the true reality of Autistic disability,” she wrote. “Twitter and Facebook are two of the sites that actually allow Autistics to communicate and connect with others in the community, so I will not be disappearing from the Internet, as it is my lifeline.”

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SFARI, November 2011.

Mouse vs. Mouse

In Chinese culture, 2011 is the year of the rabbit. In the autism research field, it seems to be the year of the mouse model, with five new mouse strains that carry the same genetic glitches as some people with the disorder.

By my count, that means researchers now have access to more than a dozen mice carrying genetic signatures linked to autism.

The idea is that by altering an individual candidate gene or genetic region in a mouse, scientists can better understand how it causes particular behaviors. These studies are exciting, but I think it’s also important to reflect on the mutant mice that, despite carrying an autism-linked genetic variation, don’t show any autism-like behaviors.

Case in point: a mouse model lacking a working version of SEMA5A, described in the November issue of Behavioural Brain Research. After performing ten standardized behavioral tests on this mouse, the researchers concluded that it has no autism-specific characteristics.

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SFARI, October 2011.

What Makes a Pun Funny?

Comedian Jessica Kirson, as captured by the inimitable Brian Friedman

My name is Ginny and I’m an adult pun-lover. When I hear a good one — Photons have mass? I didn’t even know they were Catholic! — I don’t roll my eyes or smirk. I double over laughing, like a 7-year-old.

What is it exactly that makes a pun funny (at least to those of us who humbly accept the power of the pun)?

That’s the underlying question of a brain imaging study I came across last week. Its pretty pictures don’t answer the question, really, but they’re interesting all the same. And provocative: the data could have way-down-the-road relevance for communicating with people in vegetative states.

The researchers, led by Adrian Owen at the University of Western Ontario, focused on three types of jokes:

Regular joke: Why did Cleopatra bathe in milk? Because she couldn’t find a cow tall enough for a shower.

Funny pun: Why were the teacher’s eyes crossed? Because she couldn’t control her pupils.

Unfunny pun: What was the problem with the other coat? It was difficult to put on with the paint-roller.

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The Last Word on Nothing, October 2011.

Babies in Motion

After being neglected for decades, motor development is becoming a hot topic of conversation in the autism research community.

Part of the difficulty in studying early motor skills — such as sitting up, reaching and grasping — is that infants acquire them in the first few months of life, long before autism emerges. But at a meeting of the High Risk Baby Siblings Research Consortium last week, I heard about a fascinating project that’s measuring the precise movements of infants as they interact with objects and people. The researchers are using the data to learn about infant development and build a ‘social’ robot.

Daniel Messinger, a psychology professor at the University of Miami, and his students have videotaped eight babies between 2.5 and 5 months old while they play with their mothers in a soundproof room full of toys. The babies wear handmade onesies with a small light attached near each joint. The researchers then use software called PhaseSpace to get a quantitative picture of the babies’ movements.

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SFARI, October 2011.

‘Demilitarized Zone’ Keeps Gut Bacteria Where They Belong

At least 100 trillion bacteria live in the mammalian gut and are crucial helpers for food digestion and energy production. But this poses a paradox: How can we carry all those organisms and not get sick?

As it turns out, bacteria are physically separated from the intestinal lining, which prevents them from activating their host’s immune system. According to a new study of the mouse small intestine, a molecule called MyD88 signals the presence of the bacteria, activating production of an antibacterial protein that kills any bacteria within a 50-micrometer radius – about the size of a speck of dust. The loss of this protective barrier—what the researchers cheekily call the ‘demilitarized zone,’ or DMZ—could be involved in inflammatory bowel disease or other diseases characterized by an inflamed intestine, the researchers say.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” says HHMI investigator Lora V. Hooper, quoting poet Robert Frost. Hooper led the new study, published October 14, 2011 in Science. “Trillions of friendly bacteria inhabit our guts, and we want them there, but they have to be kept at arm’s length.”

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HHMI News, October 2011.

“Reading Minds” with fMRI

Some of you, I suspect, have read in Time, Slate, NPR, Popular ScienceWired, or dozens of other news outlets that scientists have figured out how to read minds. I hate to always be the neurotech downer, but that claim is just false. Laughably false.

That’s not to say that the study behind all of the commotion, published late last month in Current Biology, isn’t impressive and worth talking about. But, as happens all too often with brain imaging studies, this one was hyped, big time. Few reporters* bothered to look for critical, or even thoughtful, comments from experts outside the research team. And so their stories wound up with headlines like, “Scientists Can (Almost) Read Your Mind,” and “Soon Enough, You May Be Able to DVR Your Dreams.”

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The Last Word on Nothing, October 2011.

Sticky Mittens

Social interactions, by definition, would seem to be fundamentally about people: eyes and facial expressions, speech and gestures, self-consciousness, projections and deception. So when I think of the science of social development, studies of face perception, eye contact, joint attention and moral dilemmas are the ones that come to mind.

But could the key to social development lie in motor development, and in an infant’s early interactions with non-social objects?

That’s the premise of a new study, published 9 September in Developmental Science. The researchers showed that reaching for and actively playing with toys can boost young infants’ interest in faces.

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SFARI, October 2011.