Sex on the brain

I used to be really interested in the research on sex differences in the brain and usually spent some time on it in my gender and politics class.  Now… not so much.  I think in the end, it’s pretty clear that there are obvious differences in the brains of men and women, but that they probably ultimately don’t really account for all that much.  As I like to say, it would be absurd to expect biological differences between men and women to occur from the feet up but stop at the neck.  Anyway, some interesting new research on the matter:

By analyzing the MRIs of 949 people aged 8 to 22, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania found that male brains have more connections within each hemisphere, while female brains are more interconnected between hemispheres.

Yes, take that, Mike from IT! It, like, so explains why you just dropped the eggnog while attempting to make flirty conversation with Janet from Accounting.

Just kidding; we still have no idea why men or women do anything in particular. But the study, released today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is interesting because it is one of the first to discover differences in the brain’s structural connectivity in a large sample size of people from a variety of age groups.

By analyzing the subjects’ MRIs using diffusion imaging, the scientists explored the brains’ fiber pathways, the bundles of axons that act as highways routing information from one part of the mind to the other. After grouping the image by sex and inspecting the differences between the two aggregate “male” and “female” pictures, the researchers found that in men, fiber pathways run back and forth within each hemisphere, while in women they tend to zig-zag between the left, or “logical,” and right, or “creative,” sides of the brain…

Scientists have long known that male and female brains are distinct, but the degree of these differences, and whether they impact behavior, is still somewhat of a mystery. The field has repeatedly unearthed seemingly solid clues that turned out to be red herrings.

There’s plenty of more interesting information in the article, but I’ll leave with the one sentence that I think is a great summary:

At the same time, there’s plenty of evidence that male brains are from Mars and female brains are, well, from a different neighborhood on Mars.



Poop pill

Well you’ve certainly heard about fecal transplants from me before.  Looks like one doctor has figured out how to make the same thing happen, but way less gross.  That’s right– fecal bacteria in a pill:

Hirsch offers them an orange pill, which they swallow. Underneath the pill’s outer shell are several smaller gel capsules. Inside the smallest capsule is a glycerin-suspended clump of bacteria that’s been extracted from human feces.

“It’s like a Russian doll,” Hirsch told me. “With a surprise in the middle.”

Hirsch is one of just a few dozen specialists in the country who perform fecal transplants—procedures used primarily to treat people who have severe gut infections caused by an overgrowth of a bacteria called Clostridium difficile.

But he’s also part of an even smaller group of practitioners who offer the transplants orally, with a pill regimen that was initially pioneered by Tom Louie, an infectious disease specialist in Calgary, Canada…

It’s well known that the microbiome—the bacterial makeup—of each person varies, but that of healthy people appears to be able to successfully settle and grow in the gut of a sick person.

First, the transplanted fecal material joins the stream that courses through the intestines. Once in the colon, the bacteria divide and propagate.

“The C. diff gets crowded out,” Hirsch said. “It’s basically lost its ecologic niche.”

Within a few days, most of Hirsch’s patients have a normal bowel movement, sometimes for the first time in years.

Given how effective fecal transplants were, Hirsch knew he had to make them easier on the patients and his staff. After he heard that the Calgary doctor had made pills using donor feces, Hirsch ordered some empty capsules off the Internet, and, as an experiment, pipetted some Coca-Cola into them.

“I was really proud of myself, and I walked over to show some of my staff members,” he said, “But they were melting in my hand. They were falling apart.”

But his interest was piqued, and it wouldn’t take long for him to perfect the process.

Pretty fascinating stuff.  It’s pretty interesting (and gross) to read about just how these pills are made.  Presumably, one of these days we’ll manage to actually culture the key fecal bacteria without the feces and then we’ll really be onto something.


Great post from Charles Pierce.  Here’s most of it:

Enough with this country’s idiotic attachment to its firearms. Enough with the politicians and lobbyists and Wayne LafkingPierres who stoke the crazies and gin up the fear and put the political momentum behind moronic “stand your ground” laws, which feed into the crazy and into the fear until stuff likes this happens.

An Ooltewah man who shot and killed what he thought was a middle-of-the-night prowler — actually a 72-year-old man with advanced Alzheimer’s disease — Wednesday in Walker County, Ga., hasn’t been charged but he might be later, authorities said. The slain man, Ronald Westbrook, had walked about 3 miles to the shooting scene from his home on Carlock Circle, Sheriff Steve Wilson said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference. When Westbrook was shot, he was clutching letters he had taken from a mailbox on Marbletop Road, where he had lived previously, the sheriff said.

This makes me weep with sorrow and sob with rage. Regular readers of the blog know that, when it comes to Alzheimer’s, I have a particularly nasty dog in that fight. (Here’s a new volume of memoirs about genetic disease in which I have a chapter.) Goddammit, when an Alzheimer’s patient tells you that he wants to “go home,” he likely means the house he grew up in, not the place where he lives now, the detonation of short-term memory being one of the disease’s first catastrophic signs. How does it possible matter that he had mail from the mailbox of his old house. The man was 72 and his brain was crumbling. Jesus.

After a nine- to 10-minute wait — and before deputies arrived — Hendrix went outside armed with a .40-caliber handgun and saw the elderly man in silhouette behind the house, the sheriff said. “There was no light except for the front porch light,” Wilson said, explaining there are no street lights at The Woodlands, the subdivision off North Marble Top Road west of Chickamauga. “[Hendrix] gave several what he described as verbal commands,” Wilson said. “[Westbrook] continued walking toward him after he told him to stop.” Westbrook was slow to talk, Wilson said, because of his advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Fearing for his safety, Hendrix fired four shots, the sheriff said. One bullet hit Westbrook in the chest, killing him.

Oh, balls. Fearing for his safety, my ass. A 72-year old with advanced Alzheimer’s often literally cannot remember how to walk. He has to cogitate the process of taking a fking step. I’ve talked to Vietnam vets who remember being at firebases where fire control was so strict that they couldn’t fire without a command even if they saw sappers coming under the wire. This guy opens up on a sick 72-year old because he’s afraid that he has no choice, because it was dark and because he cannot outrun the infirm? Of course, he does, because that is what he has been encouraged to believe is his godgiven right as an American, and because politicians have been too cowardly to rein in this culture before the gun infects every part of our society in one way or another.  [emphasis mine]

Photo of the day

From a Telegraph gallery of Velux Lovers of Light photographic competition:

'Short days' by Brian Anderson
‘Short days’ Edinburgh by Brian AndersonPicture: Brian Anderson

Obamacare is not going anywhere

Nice column from Milbank yesterday (is it an even vs odd day with him or something?) about the now-functioning exchanges:

But the real gauge of’s improvement was Republicans’ response — or lack thereof. When the House returned from Thanksgiving recess on Monday afternoon, the GOP speakers on the floor essentially ignored the Web site, instead returning to their earlier denunciations of Obamacare overall and President Obama in general.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.) yammered on about the employer mandate. Rep. Ted Poe (Tex.) likened the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran to the 1938 Munich pact. Rep. Michael Burgess (Tex.) complained about the health-care exchanges. And Rep. Joe Wilson (S.C.) criticized Obama’s job-creation record. The issue that had been the Republicans’ rallying cry for the previous eight weeks suddenly vanished.

Also, some smart thoughts from Chait:

There is no existential threat to Obamacare. The failure of the website rollout raised the possibility that the law itself might unravel. Conservatives still believe that will happen. But, then, they thought it would happen even before the website rollout, because they think Ayn Rand novels are an accurate gauge of how government programs generally function. (Scratch an Obamacare-doom column and eventually the Rand references will bleed out.) If, like me, you didn’t expect the law to collapse on itself, you probably don’t think that now.

The main questions at hand are how well it will muddle through. The dreaded “death spiral,” in which insurance markets are overloaded with sick, expensive customers, is highly unlikely to materialize, for several reasons: Both insurers and the administration have extensive plans to reach out to younger customers; the enrollment period lasts through the end of March, and people tend to enroll at the last minute; the law has a crucial financial backstop to protect insurers in case they get stuck with disproportionately sick customers to begin with.

The last best hope for Republicans was that team Obama just wouldn’t be able to get the federal exchange working (unlikely, given that many states have shown that it is eminently doable).  Now that it clearly is, it’s just back to the old, worn-out arguments.  The working poor will now get affordable insurance and people with pre-existing conditions will actually have options.  Somehow, I don’t think this means doom for capitalism.  

Pro-life (except for pregnant women)

Time for Pope Francis to weigh in on this one.  The fetishization of the human embyro– even against the life of it’s mother– is truly absurd among Catholic Bishops.  This NYT story and related Wonkblog post tell an extremely troubling tale:

The American Civil Liberties Union announced on Monday that it had filed a lawsuit against the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops, arguing that their anti-abortion directives to Catholic hospitals hamper proper care of pregnant women in medical distress, leading to medical negligence.

The suit was filed in federal court in Michigan on Friday on behalf of a woman who says she did not receive accurate information or care at a Catholic hospital there, exposing her to dangerous infections after her water broke at 18 weeks of pregnancy.

In an unusual step, she is not suing the hospital, Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon, but rather the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Itsethical and religious directives, the suit alleges, require Catholic hospitals to avoid abortion or referrals, “even when doing so places a woman’s health or life at risk. [emphasis mine]”

And Wonkblog:

One obstetrician, according to a recent report published this summer in the American Journal of Bioethics Primary Researchfaced off with his Catholic hospital’s ethics committee when he wanted to terminate the pregnancy of a women newly-diagnosed with cancer, who needed to undergo chemotherapy.

Another doctor reported a conflict at her hospital that had been sold to a Catholic hospital chain three years prior. The ethics committee ruled that a doctor could not terminate a “molar pregnancy,” where the embryo begins to develop but, due to a tumor, will not survive…

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops publishes ethical and religious directives for Catholic health care providers, meant to “to provide authoritative guidance on certain moral issues that face Catholic health care today.”

The directives guide the way that physicians practice, especially in situations involving sterilizations and obstetric complications, according to UCSF’s Freedman.

“The most concerning conflicts I’ve heard about tend to revolve around restrictions on sterilization and obstetric complications,” Freedman said. “They frequently bring up this exact scenario, where a woman is suffering pre-mature rupture of membranes in the second trimester. In a non-Catholic hospital you would talk about various options, if you want to miscarry naturally, induce labor or do you want us to do a surgical removal.” …

“We are committed to defending Americans’ right to practice religion,” Melling continued. “We have a long history of doing that. But this isn’t about religious freedom. It’s about medical care.”

I was already planning on writing about the over-zealousness of Catholic hospitals today due to a story shared by a student in class yesterday when we discussing the Hobby Lobby case.   Both her parents are physicians at a Catholic hospital and when she attempted to get contraceptives on their health insurance her parents were told in no uncertain terms that they would lose their job if their daughter followed through with this.  Just wow.  And, of course, in the real world even more than 90% of Catholic women use contraceptives at some point in their lives.  Is it just me, or is it somehow problematic having a bunch of celibate old men making policy for women’s health?

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