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Breaking news from the department for the bleeding obvious
Two major papers have recently been published that may or may not surprise you. Please excuse the sarcy title, in all seriousness these are fantastic papers that provide evidence for massive problems facing the scientific world today. They are both well worth reading in full, the key points are outlined below.
1.) 47% of press releases and 40% of abstracts reporting the results of randomized controlled trials contain spin. This spin translates directly to news coverage, a study published in PLoS Medecine found. For analysis check out Christie Wilcox's excellent blog over at Scientific American. Note the failure of paywalled content to be accurately described in abstracts (often the only freely available part of research) when considering the second study.
2.) The findings of systematic reviews lie utterly ignored by policy makers and doctors, according to a systematic review of systematic reviews (did someone say meta?) published in the British Medical Journal. The authors cite access problems (such as pay walls) as a primary reason for the failure of evidence based research to have the impact it should have on our lives. This research should cement the idea (illustrated in my last blog post) that it's important to go out and study the evidence for yourself. If you rely on mainstream media coverage you will remain misinformed. It is of course a truism that most research findings are false, the title of “the most downloaded technical paper that the journal PLoS Medicine has ever published” (Ioannidis, 2005) a paper that has been cited over 1000 times. Valid findings are established over a great deal of time through the protracted process of replications and post-publication review. We are too easily swung by charmers, fanatics and hyped up headlines. Whatever the domain, we have the right and owe it ourselves to review the evidence for ourselves, because how ever much of an expert someone sounds, it doesn't necessarily mean they are right, or perhaps more importantly - honest.
This post is the second in a new series at the Big Think. In the next post we will be delving in detail into a previously uncovered case of cherry picking, dubious patenting and disappearing negative findings in the world of Psychology. Subscribe using RSS, Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus to receive updates.
Yavchitz A, Boutron I, Bafeta A, Marroun I, Charles P, et al. (2012) Misrepresentation of Randomized Controlled Trials in Press Releases and News Coverage: A Cohort Study. PLoS Med 9(9): e1001308. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001308. Available online (open access): http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1001308
Clarke, M. Nwosu, B. Wallace, J. (2012) Barriers to the uptake of evidence from systematic reviews and meta-analyses: a systematic review of decision makers’ perceptions. BMJ Open 2012;2:5 e001220 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2012-001220. Available online (open access):http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/2/5/e001220.full
Ioannidis JPA (2005) Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. PLoS Med 2(8): e124. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124. Available online (open access):http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124
Image Credit: Spin in abstracts results in spin in press releases and news reports (Yavchitz et al (2012) PLOS Medicine)
Ever since we've had the technology, we've looked to the stars in search of alien life. It's assumed that we're looking because we want to find other life in the universe, but what if we're looking to make sure there isn't any?
Here's an equation, and a rather distressing one at that: N = R* × fP × ne × f1 × fi × fc × L. It's the Drake equation, and it describes the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy with whom we might be able to communicate. Its terms correspond to values such as the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets on which life could emerge, the fraction of planets that can support intelligent life, and so on. Using conservative estimates, the minimum result of this equation is 20. There ought to be 20 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way that we can contact and who can contact us. But there aren't any.
The Drake equation is an example of a broader issue in the scientific community—considering the sheer size of the universe and our knowledge that intelligence life has evolved at least once, there should be evidence for alien life. This is generally referred to as the Fermi paradox, after the physicist Enrico Fermi who first examined the contradiction between high probability of alien civilizations and their apparent absence. Fermi summed this up rather succinctly when he asked, “Where is everybody"?
But maybe this was the wrong question. A better question, albeit a more troubling one, might be “What happened to everybody?" Unlike asking where life exists in the universe, there's a clearer potential answer to this question: the Great Filter.
Why the universe is empty
Alien life is likely, but there is none that we can see. Therefore, it could be the case that somewhere along the trajectory of life's development, there is a massive and common challenge that ends alien life before it becomes intelligent enough and widespread enough for us to see—a great filter.
This filter could take many forms. It could be that having a planet in the Goldilocks' zone—the narrow band around a star where it is neither too hot nor too cold for life to exist—and having that planet contain organic molecules capable of accumulating into life is extremely unlikely. We've observed plenty of planets in the Goldilock's zone of different stars (there's estimated to be 40 billion in the Milky Way), but maybe the conditions still aren't right there for life to exist.
The Great Filter could occur at the very earliest stages of life. When you were in high school bio, you might have the refrain drilled into your head “mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell." I certainly did. However, mitochondria were at one point a separate bacteria living its own existence. At some point on Earth, a single-celled organism tried to eat one of these bacteria, except instead of being digested, the bacterium teamed up with the cell, producing extra energy that enabled the cell to develop in ways leading to higher forms of life. An event like this might be so unlikely that it's only happened once in the Milky Way.
Or, the filter could be the development of large brains, as we have. After all, we live on a planet full of many creatures, and the kind of intelligence humans have has only occurred once. It may be overwhelmingly likely that living creatures on other planets simply don't need to evolve the energy-demanding neural structures necessary for intelligence.
What if the filter is ahead of us?
These possibilities assume that the Great Filter is behind us—that humanity is a lucky species that overcame a hurdle almost all other life fails to pass. This might not be the case, however; life might evolve to our level all the time but get wiped out by some unknowable catastrophe. Discovering nuclear power is a likely event for any advanced society, but it also has the potential to destroy such a society. Utilizing a planet's resources to build an advanced civilization also destroys the planet: the current process of climate change serves as an example. Or, it could be something entirely unknown, a major threat that we can't see and won't see until it's too late.
The bleak, counterintuitive suggestion of the Great Filter is that it would be a bad sign for humanity to find alien life, especially alien life with a degree of technological advancement similar to our own. If our galaxy is truly empty and dead, it becomes more likely that we've already passed through the Great Filter. The galaxy could be empty because all other life failed some challenge that humanity passed.
If we find another alien civilization, but not a cosmos teeming with a variety of alien civilizations, the implication is that the Great Filter lies ahead of us. The galaxy should be full of life, but it is not; one other instance of life would suggest that the many other civilizations that should be there were wiped out by some catastrophe that we and our alien counterparts have yet to face.
Fortunately, we haven't found any life. Although it might be lonely, it means humanity's chances at long-term survival are a bit higher than otherwise.
New research shines a light on the genetics of sudden cardiac deaths.
- Soccer player Christian Eriksen of Denmark recently collapsed on the field from a cardiac arrest. Thankfully, he survived.
- A new study examined the genetics underlying unexplained sudden cardiac death.
- About 20 percent of these unexplained deaths are likely due to genetics.
The football world was rocked recently when Denmark's Christian Eriksen collapsed while suffering from cardiac arrest on the field during a European Championship match on June 12. The 29-year-old star has won the Danish Football Player of the year five times. Doctors are still baffled as to why an athlete in prime shape would experience sudden cardiac arrest.
While Eriksen's case remains a mystery, a large team of researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine recently looked into the reasons a person with no apparent health problems dies from sudden cardiac death (SCD). Their study, published in JAMA Cardiology, found that roughly 20 percent of unexplained cases involve genetics.
The mystery of sudden cardiac death
SCDs are common, with between 180,000 to 450,000 occurring every year in the United States. While coronary heart disease is involved in between 50 to 75 percent of these cases, doctors are uncertain of the reasons in 30 to 40 percent of cases.
The team notes that most research on SCDs, such as in New Zealand, Denmark, and South Korea, tend to focus on homogenous populations of people under age 35. One study based in New York investigated a racially diverse cohort but included a number of infants. While these studies looked at genetic components of SCD, they write, "No systematic comparison of the genetics underlying cases of unexplained SCD between adult White and African American descendants has ever been conducted."
The State of Maryland's medical examiner's office has been collecting data on SCDs for over two decades, which gave the team a rich collection of data to pull from — over 5,000 such cases. From that data set, the researchers looked at 683 African American and white adults (median age: 41). In total, the DNA of 413 patients who died from unexplained SCD was genetically sequenced. Thirty different cardiomyopathy genes and 38 arrhythmia genes were examined.
Genetic screens for sudden cardiac death
Clinical associate professor of medicine and corresponding author Aloke Finn explains the importance of rooting out the cause of SCDs: "Genetic screening isn't routinely used in cardiology, and far too many patients still die suddenly from a heart condition without having any previously established risk factors. We need to do more for them."
One surprising finding was the large number of the deceased that carried the genetic variant for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), which causes the heart's muscle tissue to be abnormally thick. This could explain why people with no apparent heart disease experience cardiac arrest seemingly out of nowhere. While HCM is a somewhat common heart disorder (with a prevalence as high as 0.2 percent), we're only just now learning the role of genes in determining who suffers from a fatal attack.
What is clear, however, is that those with particular genetic variants are likelier to die from unexplained SCD earlier in life than others who die from unexplained SCD.By identifying these genes, researchers hope this information could be used in future medical screenings. E. Albert Reece, Dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, believes this could save lives.
"This is a fascinating study that provides important new insights into devastating deaths due to unexplained cardiac abnormalities. It certainly makes the case for more research to address this urgent health need and save lives in the future."
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
A new device cured the hiccups 92 percent of the time in a recent study involving more than 200 participants.
- Hiccups are an occasional annoyance to most people, but some get them frequently. Others suffer from episodes that last days, months, or even years.
- A new "suction and swallow" tool stops hiccups 92% of the time by activating the same muscles and nerves that are involved during the hiccup reflex arc.
- Although the new tool may be convenient, you can probably mimic its function with a glass of water and a straw.
In 1922, an Iowa man named Charles Osborne was preparing to butcher a hog. As he was lifting the 350-pound carcass, he fell. He didn't report any pain to his doctor. But he did walk away with a strange medical condition that earned him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records: the longest bout of hiccups.
Osborne hiccuped for 68 consecutive years. In total, he hiccuped an estimated 430 million times, at a rate of up to 40 hiccups per minute. He tried numerous home remedies. None worked. Then, one year before his death in 1991, his hiccups mysteriously stopped.
That's an extreme example of a hiccup attack. But even for much shorter episodes, called transient hiccups when they resolve within 48 hours, it can be hard to find a home remedy that works reliably, if you find one at all.
A new remedy recently had its hiccup-quashing abilities put to the test. The "forced inspiratory suction and swallow tool," marketed as the HiccAway, is basically a drinking device with a specialized straw that requires forceful suction to draw liquid.
The idea is to stimulate the same body parts that execute the involuntary hiccup response, so much so that they stop triggering hiccups. (The official medical term is singultus, from the Latin word "singult," which means gasping while sobbing.)
What happens during hiccups?
When you hiccup, your diaphragm — a large, dome-shaped muscle beneath the lungs — involuntarily contracts. This spasm causes the sudden closure of your epiglottis, a flap of cartilage at the root of the tongue that closes when you swallow so that food and liquids don't enter the lungs. The shutting of your epiglottis is what makes the "hic" sound during hiccups.
Two major nerves are involved in the hiccup process. The phrenic nerve helps contract the diaphragm, while the vagus nerve shuts the epiglottis. By forcefully sucking on the tool's straw and then swallowing water, you contract the diaphragm and close the epiglottis. These two actions stimulate the phrenic and vagus nerves, which interrupts the hiccup reflex arc.
The tool has a mouthpiece on the top, a body in the middle, and an adjustable cap with a pressure valve on the lower end.Alvarez et al.
"HiccAway can instantly stop hiccups by generating enough pressure while sipping from the device to lower the diaphragm while simultaneously activating the leaf-shaped flap in the throat, known as the epiglottis," the company writes on its website. "Doing this stimulates two key nerves, the phrenic and the vagus nerves, which are responsible for the hiccups. This allows the brain to reset and stop hiccups."
Testing the device
To test the efficacy of the tool, researchers with the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio sent the HiccAway to more than 600 people who reported having hiccups at least once a month. The results showed that the tool stopped hiccups 92 percent of the time for the 249 participants whose responses were validated in the study. More than 90 percent of participants said it was more effective than home remedies.
"Many home remedies consist of physical maneuvers designed to stimulate contraction of the diaphragm and/or closure of the epiglottis," stated a study published in JAMA Network Open. "These maneuvers lack clear, standardized instructions and can be cumbersome to perform, and there are few, if any, scientific studies of their effectiveness."
Still, it's worth noting that the results were based on self-reported data, and the study didn't feature a control group. Future research could compare the efficacy of HiccAway with a device that looks similar but doesn't function.
It's also worth pointing out that you don't need a $14 device to stimulate the vagus and phrenic nerves. You may just need a glass of water and a straw. A 2006 article published in the British Medical Journal noted that "plugging both ears tightly, pushing both right and left tragus, and drinking the entire glass of water through the straw without pause, without releasing the pressure over the ears" is a "nearly infallible" method to stop hiccups.
What if nothing stops your hiccups? Consider consulting a doctor: Persistent hiccups can signal underlying medical conditions, including pancreatitis, pregnancy, and liver cancer, among others.