Happy 2011! This could be the year of affordable genome sequencing, a drug for hepatitis C, and using stem cells to study psychiatric disorders.
But first, let’s get caught up with some of the cool discoveries from last week.
1. Anesthetized or comatose?
During surgery, an anesthetized brain isn't asleep. Turns out, being “put under” means being placed into a reversible, drug-induced coma.
About 60,000 patients a day in the US receive general anesthesia. According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, the brain under anesthesia is much closer to the deeply unconscious low-brain activity seen in coma patients than to sleeping people.
Knowing more about the brain circuit mechanisms may help develop therapeutic agents to "tweak the circuits as needed, to help us in the areas where we don't do well, such as abnormalities of sleep and, especially, emergence from a coma," adds study co-author Nicholas Schiff of Weill Cornell Medical College. The results of this review could lead to monitoring tools and diagnostics to assess what stage of recovery a person with a coma is in.
2. You are what your parents ate too
Male mice on a strict low-protein diet actually fathered mouse babies who had different metabolisms than those sired by males on a standard diet, a new Cell study shows.
Those changes occurred even though the fathers never met their kids and spent nearly no time with the mothers, the researchers say.
“Knowing what your parents were doing before you were conceived is turning out to be important in determining what disease risk factors you may be carrying,” says author Oliver Rando of University of Massachusetts Medical School.
"We are more than just our genes," Rando adds, "and there are many ways our parents can 'tell' us things."
The changes in livers from the mice from protein-starved fathers involved genes that control cholesterol and lipid synthesis, "consistent with the idea that when parents go hungry, it's best for offspring to hoard calories," Rando says.
3. A daily 30-minute walk lowers colon cancer risk
Consistent exercise is associated with a lower risk of dying from colon cancer, an “enormous 'bang for the buck'” says Kathleen Wolin of Washington University School of Medicine.
The researchers examined data from the American Cancer Society Prevention Study II (CPS II) on more than 150,000 men and women. Their levels of physical activity (between 1982 and 1997) were compared to the number of colon cancer diagnoses (between 1998 and 2005) and to the number of colon cancer deaths (between 1998 and 2006).
Turns out that those who exercised consistently for at least 10 years had the lowest risk of colon cancer death. "People often wonder around the start of a new year whether exercise really will help them stay healthy or whether it's already too late," says Wolin. "It's never too late."
4. Of alcoholism and obesity
Men and women with a family history of alcoholism were more likely to be obese in 2002 than members of that same high-risk group had been in 1992, according to a study in Archives of General Psychiatry.
Washington University School of Medicine researchers compared addiction and obesity trends from a nationwide survey conducted in 1991-92 and 2001-02 with nearly 80,000 participants.
According to author Richard Grucza, a possible explanation for the link is that some individuals may substitute one addiction for another. Like alcohol, high-calorie foods can also stimulate the reward centers in the brain.
Obesity in the US has doubled from 15% in the late 1970s to 33% in 2004. As Grucza stresses, “the environment is what changed between the 1990s and the 2000s. It wasn't people's genes.”
"We already know that formula-fed babies gain more weight than breast-fed babies. But we didn't know whether this was true for all types of formula,” says Julie Mennella from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, who authored the new Pediatrics study.
Two-week-old infants were bottle-fed either a cow's milk-based formula or a protein hydrolysate formula (which contain pre-digested proteins). The two have the same amount of calories.
Over the course of seven months, the protein hydrolysate infants gained weight at a slower rate than babies who drank the cow milk.
"One of the reasons the protein hydrolysate infants had similar growth patterns to breast-fed infants, who are the gold standard, is that they consumed less formula during a feed as compared to infants fed cow's milk formula," Mennella says. "The next question to ask is: Why do infants on cow's milk formula overfeed?"
Image: Father Time and Baby New Year via Wiki