More microbial mind control

In this case, toxoplasmosis (famously transmitted by cats).  The nickel summary:

Toxo has been all over the news in recent years, since it became known that the parasite manipulates people’s behavior. Maybe most interestingly and notoriously, it seems to make men more introverted, suspicious, unattractive to women, and oblivious to the way others see them. Infected women, inversely, have been shown to be more outgoing, trusting, sexually adventurous, attractive to men, and image-conscious. Infected men tend to break more rules than their uninfected peers, and infected women tend to pay them more heed. Infected men and women are 2.5 times more likely to have traffic accidents, more likely to develop schizophrenia, and more likely to engage in self-directed violence.

But don’t start thinking about getting infected on purpose.  It attacks when you are weak:

But the Toxo lives on inside them, hidden dormant in little cysts, kept in check by constant pressure from the person’s immune system. If our immune systems become weak, because of a serious illness later in life, though, the Toxo can break out and attack organs like the brain or retina.

Yowza.  In short:

Bacteria and autism

How can I not write about new findings linking autism to the microbiome (at least in mice)?  I can’t not.  From Science:

Many physicians and parents report that their autistic children have unusually severe gastrointestinal problems, such as chronic constipation or diarrhea. These observations have led some researchers to speculate that an ailing gut contributes to the disorder in some cases, but scientific data has been lacking. Now, a provocative study claims that a probiotic treatment for gastrointestinal issues can reduce autismlike symptoms in mice and suggests that this treatment could work for humans, too.

The reported incidence of gut maladies in people with autism varies wildly between published studies—from zero to more than 80%—making it difficult to establish just how commonly the two conditions go together, says principal investigator Sarkis Mazmanian, a microbiologist at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. Overall, however, the evidence seems to point toward a connection. Last year, for example, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of thousands of children with developmental disabilities found that kids with autism were twice as likely as children with other types of disorders to have frequent diarrhea or colitis, an inflammation of the large intestine…

“It’s really striking that any bacterial treatment—even a transient one—could have a lasting impact on behavior,” Hsiao says. The most interesting thing about the results, she says, was not the correction of the autistic symptoms in the mice, but the clues the study provided about how the gut’s microbial population may affect the brain and behavior. The researchers found that levels of a substance called 4-ethylphenylsulfate that is produced by gut bacteria increased 46-fold in the mice with autistic symptoms, but returned to normal after treatment withB. fragilis. When the team isolated that chemical and injected it into healthy mice, the rodents showed increased anxiety, another autismlike symptom, she says. Although the substance did not provoke the symptoms seen in the previous experiment, Hsiao says that the animals’ altered response suggests that the substance could play a role in the disorder. Hundreds of other metabolic byproducts also changed in quantity after B. fragilis was administered and could have an effect, she adds.

By demonstrating that a widely used mouse model of autism does have gastrointestinal problems, and that these problems are associated with behavioral symptoms, the new research “shows us something fabulous,” says Betty Diamond, an immunologist at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York. She cautions, however, that it would be premature to use B. fragilis or another probiotic as a treatment in humans. “We don’t really understand” which bacterial species are important or how they colonize the gut, she says.

Wow.  Pretty amazing stuff.  Of course, given the constant advances on what we’re learning about the impact of our microbiome, perhaps not all that surprising.  I don’t think we’re looking at any potential “cure” for autism here– I suspect autism is far more complicated than simply one’s gut bacteria and how it interacts with the brain, but I suspect that there is very real potential for a probiotic treatment that would definitely lessen some of the negative symptoms of autism.  And actually, my son Alex can be anxious as hell.  Not that I’m going to drop the Risperdal any time soon (though, I sure wish we could because the appetite and weight gain are a really unfortunate side effect– I’m a little wistful when I see photos of thin Alex on my screen saver), but I’m definitely going to look more into the issue of bacteria and anxiety.

And, big picture… yet more evidence that understanding these bacteria-human relationships are going to be at the forefront of coming medical advances.

Quote of the day

Rick Santorum on Nelson Mandela:

Rick Santorum said Thursday that Nelson Mandela had fought against “some great injustice” — apartheid — just as Republicans are fighting against the great injustice of Obamacare.

“He was fighting against some great injustice, and I would make the argument that we have a great injustice going on right now in this country with an ever-increasing size of government that is taking over and controlling people’s lives — and Obamacare is front and center in that,” Santorum said Thursday in an interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News.

Photo of the day

This Reuters collection of “best photos of 2013” is amazing.  Lots of terrific “human drama” photos that are typically not the ones I share here (and, yes, lots of dead people).  That said, ultimately I cannot resist a great power of nature photo:


“Qiantang River is the biggest river in Zhejiang province, and it became famous recently because of the odd scenery of the Qiantang River Tide. Every year around the eighteenth day of the eighth month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar, the tidal waves reach their peak level, attracting tens of thousands of tourists to witness the event. It was my first time covering the tidal waves. Before my assignment, I knew there were many nice images from there. Most of them were of people running away from the surging tides. It gets tiring seeing so many similar images. Therefore, I was determined to shoot something different. 

The first day, because of the lack of experience, I was knocked to the ground by a huge wave. My cell phone, bag, wallet were all soaked, and my shoes were also washed away. On the second day, which happened to be the eighteenth day of the eighth month, I believed the waves would be much stronger especially with Typhoon Usagi approaching China at the same time. After learning a great deal from the embarrassing previous day, I reached the observation area earlier. I decided not to get too close but to be behind the tourists. I thought that the bigger waves and the bigger crowd might be able to fit in one frame. 

Then it was all about luck, I was lucky that the tide hit and surged right in front of my camera, and also lucky enough that all the people all raised their mobile phones or camera trying to take pictures. Many may wonder why these tourists didn’t run from the waves. Actually, the police had closed the river bank to tourists because of possible risks, so I can assure everyone these people were safe, and every one of them probably had pretty good pictures.” 

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, lens 16-35mm, f9, 1/1000, ISO 400 

Caption: Visitors take pictures of tidal waves under the influence of Typhoon Usagi in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, September 22, 2013.

The private sector ain’t always so great either

Just so we’re clear, like most all liberals I think capitalism works much better than a planned economy.  I just think we need to put serious and thoughtful constraints on how capitalism functions so that we can create a greater public good.  One thing I’m sure I’ve mentioned before is that private business is just as capable of screwing things up as government, it’s just that there’s not the same transparency nor public interest in most private business screw-ups.  But if you look closer, you’ll surely find just as much waste, fraud, and human stupidity in corporate bureaucracies (which any large corporation is) as in government bureacracies.  The difference is that we are much more likely to hear about these things in the latter.  As I tell my students, if you really want a government without waste, fraud, and abuse, you’ve got one choice.  Skynet.


Anyway, I therefore really appreciate this gawker piece that points out just how much private industry can screw things up:

A just-released draft report by In the Public Interest, a nonprofit contracting watchdog, offers nationwide look into just how the push for privatization is screwing up everything, from sick nuns to broken roads to beaten foster children.

The full report—titled “Out of Control”—is available here; here are some of the highlights. Grab your gas masks and armbands:

  • Los Angeles County continually renewed its $3 million year contract with a firm called Wings of Refuge to place foster children, despite numerous reports of kids going to abusive homes where they were beaten and locked away for days on end.
  • Indiana hired IBM to run its food stamp and Medicaid programs, then bungled it and dumped thousands of residents from the rolls—including an elderly nun who was denied food stamps because she missed a recertification interview while hospitalized for cancer.
  • School-cafeteria workers in New Jersey saw their hourly wages cut by $4 to $6 an hour after their jobs were privatized. “[W]e use our personal sick days just to get paid so we can pay rent for the next month,” one told investigators.

You get the picture.  Sometimes the free market and private industry and the best solution.  Sometimes they’re not.  The problem comes when ideology trumps the real world and people become convinced that private is always better no matter what.

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