Thoughts on World Mental Health Day

Yesterday was World Mental Health Day, with the theme for 2014 being “Living with schizophrenia”. Perhaps not as popular as any given cancer initiative. Or diabetes day. And yet.

The brain is an organ like any other in our bodies, but we don’t react to diseases of the mind the way we react to diseases of the heart, pancreas, etc. Once upon a time, people whose brains were “malfunctioning”, i.e. not functioning like those of the majority of human beings, were declared “crazy” or “retarded” and were more or less discarded from society. Fortunately, things have improved, but there is still a lot of stigma out there. Continue reading

Childcaring changes a father’s brain activity pattern

Among the editors’ picks of yesterday’s Science issue was a paper published in PNAS and entitled “Father’s brain is sensitive to childcare experiences”. Brain imaging is not my area of expertise, so in such a case, I would usually just read the paper’s abstract (which sums up what was done in the study and what was found), and move on. This time however, I also looked at the metrics linked to the paper (how much the study was relayed in newspapers, blogs, social networks, etc.).

I expected that such a topic would have been picked up by many news outlets. It turns out that it had not (at least not yet), but there were a few tweets about the study that bothered me. One of them said something to the point that hands-on childcaring could rewire a father’s brain the same way a pregnancy did a mother’s brain. Continue reading

Predictive value of screening tests – Or how a 90%-accurate test can generate a positive that has a 68% chance of being false

In my previous post, I talked about a study published recently in Nature Medicine that reported the identification of a set of compounds whose concentration in blood might predict if a person would develop memory impairment (or even early Alzheimer’s disease) within the next few years.

My goal in writing that post was to describe how the people included in the analysis that had led to the identification of the compounds had been selected, in order to highlight two main points:
1) the results of the study applied to people who had met a particular set of criteria, and they were therefore not directly generalizable to the whole population,
2) the lipids used to develop the blood test were identified based on differences in blood concentration between relatively small numbers of people, making it all the more important to verify that these differences would also be seen in larger cohorts of people before claiming that a blood test had indeed been developed.

I then noticed that many news articles reporting the study results to the public not only gave the impression that an up and running blood test for Alzheimer’s disease was on the table, or would very soon be, but also often mentioned that the blood test would predict Alzheimer’s disease “with 90% accuracy”.

I can see two problems with giving out such a piece of information without elaborating on the subject. Continue reading

(Not yet) a blood test to detect preclinical Alzheimer’s disease

Image courtesy of the National Institute on Aging/National Institutes of Health.

A team of US researchers recently reported in Nature Medicine having identified a panel of ten molecules whose concentration in blood could predict whether someone in the group of people studied would go on to develop signs of Alzheimer’s disease within the next two or three years or not.

Does this mean that it will soon be possible to tell people whether they will develop Alzheimer’s disease or not from a simple blood test, as some headlines in the media seem to imply? Not quite. To understand why, we need to look a bit more closely at the study, its results and limitations.

Continue reading

Sudden infant death syndrome and brainstem abnormalities

Many aspects of our lives are more or less governed by fashions, and parenting is no exception. From the rather dry mode of parenting of our grandparents (Babies fed and changed? Then let them cry themselves to sleep) to some of the extremes of the “attachment parenting” of today, parenting styles have varied together with recommendations of the medical community, traditions, innovations and social trends. In some cases, different school of thoughts may coexist: pacifier or no pacifier, baby in recliner next to parent or in a wrap carrier on parent, etc. In others, change should be readily embraced as a crucial step to improve babies’ health and safety. A baby’s sleep position belongs to the latter category. Continue reading

In brief (April 2013) – Microbiome, gender and diabetes; stealth nanoparticles and anticancer drug; (not quite) dream reading

Three picks from what I’ve read over the past two months:
microbiome, gender and diabetes, or how gut bacteria influence susceptibility to disease in females versus males in a mouse model of type 1 diabetes,
stealth nanoparticles and drug delivery, or how a short chain of amino acids can get anticancer drug-carrying nanoparticles past the defenses of the immune system,
(not quite) dream reading, or how researchers can approximately tell what kind of images are going trough your mind in the stage 1 of sleep. Continue reading

Baby versus adult brain, the fMRI picture

What’s going on inside a baby’s brain?

If you’re asking whether your baby is currently pondering the immensity of the universe or simply resenting your friend for making a snide comment about its hair (or lack thereof), there’s probably no way to provide you with a definite answer (although I would venture to say it’s probably not doing either of those things). However, if you’re asking whether a baby’s brain works the same way as an adult brain, at its most basic level of functioning, then it’s possible to start answering the question. Continue reading

Oxytocin and human behavior – or how a hormone can (or can’t) influence the distance between man and woman upon a first encounter.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a piece of news in a popular science magazine about the hormone oxytocin and how it affects the behavior of men in relationships towards unknown women. Not surprisingly, I subsequently saw that several media had picked up on the story. After all, questions of fidelity and maintenance of long-term relationships usually raise a certain amount of interest in people. The headlines ranged from a rather neutral report of the study’s main conclusion (oxytocin affects the distance men in relationships keep from unknown women) to slightly more far-fetched – and surely catchier – claims (oxytocin may help keep men from cheating).

Rather intrigued, I checked out the original study, which was published on November 14 in the Journal of Neuroscience. Continue reading