Amusing encounter…

When exiting a pub in Keswick (Lake District) at the weekend, I walked headlong into a blind man and his Alsatian guide dog who were heading into the pub. He laughed and apologised, then told me, “Sorry, I’m following the dog; he never misses a pub!”



Welcome to Mental Indigestion….

Not sure how you’ve arrived here? I set up a DNS forward from my old ‘time to waste’ blog. You will find all the content from that blog in this blog. In fact, there is very little difference, other than that the name and domain of my blog now match.

I have every intention of up-scaling my coverage of science, which will be in bite-sized pieces to help prevent mental indigestion. So if anyone is suffering with brain biliousness and needs an intellectual Alka-Seltzer, then you’ve come to the right place.


The strength of great apes…

The next time you’re down the pub, engaging your favourite Chimpanzee in an arm wrestle, I want you to reflect on a few things (besides the absurdity of wrestling an Ape).

As you take up the strain, know that the fine-tuned positioning and slow, steady building of muscle force you exert is due to the greater amount of grey matter that you posses in your spinal cord; motor neuron nerves cells that connect to muscle fibres and regulate muscle movement. The huge surplus of motor neurons you possess allows you to engage smaller portions of your muscles at any given time. A Chimpanzee, by comparison, has fewer motor neurons, thus each neuron triggers a greater number of muscle fibres, resulting in a greater proportion of muscle activation.

Reflect on how this finely tuned, incremental strength allows you to engage in tensing your muscle for a longer period. It is this fine motor control that allows you to do delicate tasks, like be victorious on the Nintendo Wii or replace the RAM in your laptop, and you know that if the RAM chip stubbornly refuses to slot back into place, you can gently exert greater and greater precise force until it does.

Finally, as the arm wrestle begins in earnest, reflect on two last things: one, your brain limits the degree of your muscle activation in an attempt to prevent damage to the fine motor control components of your muscles; and two, a Chimpanzee has no such limitation. So as the Chimpanzee tears off your arm easily and beats you over the head with it, think to yourself that rather than engaging in an arm wrestle with a Chimp, which has four times your strength, try sitting at home playing your Nintendo Wii instead, the precise motions for which it seems we are supremely evolved.

Inspired by Alan Walker’s (Professor of Anthropology at Penn State) research article ‘The strength of Great Apes and the speed of Humans’; free to read in the recent issue of the journal Current Anthropology.

Like this article? Please consider submitting it to Open Lab 2009:

Open Lab 2009

Letter to The Guardian…

A little long, didn’t fly, but better luck next time.

[Guardian, Tuesday 31st April] Cherill Hicks article, ‘Not to be sneezed at’, gave a timely and largely useful revision of therapies available to hay fever sufferers, but tripped up by suggesting that research on homeopathic treatments was ‘encouraging’.

It is still the consensus in the scientific literature that homeopathy does not perform any better than placebo, an issue which has been addressed by a comprehensive study by Aijing Shang MD and colleagues at the University of Berne, Switzerland. The study, published in The Lancet (2005), compared 110 homeopathy trials with 110 conventional medicine trials, and found that conventional medicines work, with little evidence to say the same of homeopathic medicines.

The positive findings of a few placebo-controlled trials of homeopathic medicines are cherry picked from a mountain of contradictory results, and are generally found to result from combinations of methodological deficiencies and biased reporting. The ‘encouraging’ results for treatment of hay fever with Galphimia glauca arise from a series of studies by a single homeopathy research group, and have been given unwarranted kudos in homeopathy circles due to the publication of a meta-analysis, which is an analytical over-view of combined results from numerous methodologically similar studies.

However, the meta-analysis only consists of seven trials (included in the Lancet study by Dr Shang and colleagues), and all come from the same research group; indeed, the group leader was a co-author on the meta-analysis itself. There are insufficient data from independently reproduced studies to corroborate the positive findings for Galphimia glauca as a treatment for hay fever, thus its status as a recommendable therapy is dubious.

Good idea….

A technique to ensure/encourage patient compliance was recently described on the Freakonomics blog. In the example they described a device that could be used to detect the metabolites (breakdown products) of TB medication in urine.  It was developed by Jose Gomez-Marquez and colleagues at MIT’s ‘Innovations in International Health’ programme; a more detailed discussion of the history behind its development can be found at Biosensors such as these are these are nothing new of course, but it is the potential application that is interesting. Essentially it is a device that encodes a pattern, or series of numbers or code, that can only be revealed by urine from a patient who has been taking their medication. This pattern of number could be their entry to a ‘lottery’ or some other economically-driven, and presumably ethical, contest.

It is certainly an interesting idea and can be derivatised for numerous treatments that require patient compliance. As the Freakonomics blog describes, it is an excellent fusion of economics and science, using the tangible prospect of economic gain to encourage patients to address the rather esoteric long-term treatment of slow-healing bacterial infections such as TB.

It is one of a number of tactics, along with new drugs that reduce treatment time, that could be brought to bear in the light of the rather sombre report ‘Global Tuberculosis Control 2009‘ commissioned by WHO, which is discussed in an editorial in The Lancet (4th April edition).