Changing Over Time

Here’s some welcome, but not especially surprising, news:  scientists have concluded that our personalities change over time.

seniors_teensThe University of Edinburgh did an interesting study that confirms what should be obvious — people in their teenage years are a lot different from those same people as geriatrics.  The study looked at data compiled about the personality and character traits of people who were evaluated in 1947, at age 14, as part of the Scottish Mental Survey, and then tried to track down those same people down years later, when they hit age 77, to evaluate them again.  The study looked a personal qualities like self-confidence, perseverance, stability of moods, conscientiousness, originality, and desire to excel, and found very little correlation between the 14-year-olds and the 77-year-olds on the conscientiousness and stability of moods qualities, and no correlation on the others.

Any study of personality and character traits is not going to be as precise as, say, measuring the flow or neutrinos, because of observer bias.  The University of Edinburgh results, for example, rely on teacher assessments of the 14-year-olds — it’s not hard to imagine that your gym teacher might have a different take on self-confidence than your English teacher, for example —  and the 77-year-olds rated themselves and identified a close friend or family member to complete the survey.  I imagine, however, that by age 77 most people are going to drop the posturing and evaluate themselves pretty honestly.

So life, and time, change you.  No surprise there!  It would be weird indeed if a lifetime of experiences, good and bad, didn’t actually alter the way you reacted to other people and the world at large.  I carry around memories from my 14-year-old self, but other than that I don’t really feel a great connection to that awkward, tubby, dreamy, self-absorbed person on the verge of high school — which is kind of a relief, really.  I imagine that if most of us met our 14-year-old selves, we’d find it fascinating, but then conclude that we really weren’t all that likable back then, and give our parents, siblings, and friends a lot more credit for putting up with us.

The key, of course, is to change for the better.  It’s a worthy goal.

The Original Wonder Drug

A few years ago, our family doctor, who is a big believer in preventative medicine, encouraged me to start taking one low dose aspirin tablet ever day.  He said that you can’t argue with the statistics, which show all kinds of health benefits for people over the age of 50, including reduced risk of heart attack, from popping one of the tiny 81 milligram pills when you get up in the morning.  Since then, it’s become part of my daily routine.

bfd1b581-55ea-43ed-99f3-2410b30c9108_1-b4f9e3c1a45452b53c94cf7b9a8027a3But, because I’m curious, I found myself wondering . . . what’s in aspirin, anyway?

The active ingredient in aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid, which is based on a substance generated in plants of the Spiraea genus.  For almost as long as humans have been around, since the days of ancient Egypt, they’ve been chewing the barks and leaves of certain trees or eating certain foods to obtain the pain reduction effects of the acid, without knowing that it was the acid that was doing the heavy lifting.  In the 1800s, doctors and scientists realized that chewing tree bark might not be the best way to deliver the therapeutic effects and began to focus on what was actually causing people to feel better.  They discovered that salicylic acid was the key ingredient, and then developed the acid synthetically.  The acetylsalicylic acid was reduced to powder form and mixed with other substances — stomach-friendly buffers like corn starch — for delivery to patients.  Bayer aspirin is called that because it was developed by a chemist in Bayer, Germany, and was first sold in pill form in 1915.

I remember taking St. Joseph’s aspirin for children, in those tasty, chewable, orange-flavored tablets, when I was a kid, and then as a teenager I graduated to the Bayer bottle, taking one of those dusty, bitter white pills if I had a bad headache.  Now those little 81 milligram pills, helpfully coated to go down easy, are working every day in my blood stream, trying keep the platelets flowing rather than clumping.

Those ancient Egyptians obviously knew what they were doing, but I’m glad that I can get the benefits by taking a pill rather than munching on some tree bark.

The End Of “Drilling And Filling”

Here’s another example of the miracles of modern medicine:  scientists have discovered a drug that appears to encourage damaged teeth to regenerate — a development that could bring an end to the practice of drilling out cavities and filling them.

normal-tooth_1The drug is called Tideglusib.  It not only is self-evidently unpronounceable, it also has the effect of stimulating and activating stem cells within the pulpy center of teeth, promoting the generation of the hard material that makes up most of our teeth, called the dentin — as anyone who has carefully read the tooth diagrams and tooth charts at the dentist’s office will recall.  Scientists tested the drug on mice, and found that applying the drug to cavities in the teeth of mice, using a biodegradable sponge, caused the tooth being treated to regenerate enough dentin to close the cavity.  (Wait a second:  mice get cavities, too?  They must not be very attentive to brushing and flossing.)

The next step will be to test the drug on humans, but the signs are encouraging that we may be on the verge of a new approach to dentistry.  Speaking as someone who practiced terrible dental hygiene as a callow youth and often found myself sitting in the dentist’s chair, mouth agape, listening to the whine of the drill and hoping it didn’t strike a nerve, I think an approach that lets teeth regenerate naturally would be terrific.  And, for those of us who have dental fillings that date back to the days of Beatlemania, the regeneration of natural teeth would have the advantage of avoiding visits to the dentist because old fillings are finally cracking or breaking and need to be replaced, too.

 

Say Hello To Your New Organ

Scientists have determined that there is officially a new organ in the human body, which now will be enshrined within our starting lineup of stomach, lungs, heart, kidneys, and the other slimy, wriggly bags of glop pulsing along inside our skin suits.

mesentery-0The new organ — called the mesentery — isn’t “new” in the sense that it only popped into the human body in 2016.  It’s always been there, between your intestines and your abdomen, helping to advance the human digestive system.  In fact, Leonardo da Vinci, who found time to weigh in on anatomy between completing paintings and designing machines that never got built, considered it to be an organ, but later medical types decided that the mesentery instead should be viewed as a number of distinct structures.  However, recent tests confirmed that the distinct structures function together, which means that old Leo was right and puts the mesentery squarely into the “organ” category.  Gray’s Anatomy, the ultimate medical textbook, has had to be amended to make sure that the mesentery is properly categorized, and scientists and doctors hope that the changed classification will allow the mesentery to be more fully studied and, perhaps, lead to the development of better surgical approaches and treatments of disease.

The mesentery may be an ugly conglomeration of tissue that looks like something that has washed up on a beach and sat there for a while, but it performs two important functions.  First, it provides a conduit for blood vessels, nerves, and the lymphatic system to reach from the rest of the human body down to the intestines.  And second, it allows the intestines to be linked to the abdominal wall without being directly attached to the wall.

As one doctor noted, in describing this second function:  “It is unlikely that [the intestine] would be able to contract and relax along its entire length if it were directly in contact [with the abdominal wall]. [The mesentery] maintains the intestine in a particular conformation, ‘hitched up,’ so that when you stand up or walk about, it doesn’t collapse into the pelvis and not function.”

An important function?  I’ll say!  Given the role of the intestines, we obviously all should be gratefully thanking the mesentery for allowing us to answer nature’s call without having to “hitch up” and rearrange our innards afterwards.  I’m glad the mesentery is finally getting its just acknowledgement.

Smell Test

How often should you run the towels in the bathroom at your house through the washer and dryer?  The experts say to pay attention to your nose.

img_3625It’s kind of disgusting to think about, but microbiologists will tell you that once you use a towel, you’re leaving a deposit of all kinds of materials that microscopic organisms crave on that nice, warm, fluffy, cottony cloth.  That includes not only the water, dead skin cells, bacteria, grime, and other substances that you’re swabbing away as you dry off — that’s what a towel is for, after all — but also tiny droplets that may get thrust into the air when you flush your toilet, as well as other germ life lingering in your bathroom.  By providing such moist, fertile territory, your towel can quickly become a teeming petri dish for mass microbial breeding.

Nice!

But we also know that washing towels after one use is inconvenient and not particularly environmentally sensitive.  If you’ve stayed in a hotel in the last decade, you’ve undoubtedly seen the little signs asking you to consider whether, to help protect the environment, you can hang up that towel and use it a second time.

So what’s the appropriate balance?  Experts say that, if you hang up and can completely dry your towel, you should use it no more than three times before washing it again.  And be sure to give it a sniff, too.  If your towel smells, that means the microbes are at it in force, and it’s time for a trip to the washer.

Who says science isn’t useful?  Now we can officially confirm that a smelly towel should be washed.  I wonder what science says about smelly socks?

Nazis Under Antarctica

Ten years ago, satellite observations by NASA detected a gravitational anomaly in the Wilkes Land section of Antarctica.  The gravitational changes caused scientists to discover a massive impact crater and, at its center, a huge object buried under the Antarctica ice.  The object is more than 151 miles long and a half mile thick.

So . . . it’s an asteroid, right?  We know that, from time to time, Earth has been struck by asteroids, leaving impact craters scattered across the globe.  Some scientists believe that large asteroid strikes, and the impact they have had on the planet’s climate, are responsible for some of the mass extinctions seen in the fossil record.  An enormous asteroid striking Antarctica could be responsible for the great Permian-Triassic extinction event, when something happened that wiped out almost all of the plant and animal life on Earth, on both land and in the sea, about 250 million years ago.

Not so fast!  Ancient meteor strikes aren’t really all that interesting, are they?  I mean, that just makes this intriguing anomaly a super big rock buried in ice.  And in fact, when the massive object under the icy wastes of Wilkes Land was first discovered, nobody paid much attention to it.  But when a UFO hunting outfit recently posted a YouTube video about the Antarctica anomaly, suddenly the conspiratorially minded among us started to get interested.

So now the internet with abuzz with the possibility that the massive object could be an ancient UFO, or maybe an alien landing base.  Or the lost city of Atlantis!  Or the entrance to the creepy underworld lair called “Hollow Earth.”  Or — my favorite — a massive base secretly built by the Nazis where they planned to develop and use “flying saucers.”  Lucky for us that those inventive Nazis spent the time, money, and effort to build an enormous snow-encased base for flying saucers, when they could have used those resources, and those flying saucers, to avoid losing the war instead!

I think the possibility that we’ve located a gigantic asteroid that almost killed off every life form on Earth seems pretty interesting, but for some people nothing is as fascinating as speculating about Nazis and UFOs.

Why Sex Evolved

Scientists are curious people.

Some scientists are trying to determine why sex evolved.  Early life forms had to reproduce somehow, and presumably did so by natural cloning.  At some point in the past, however, sex entered the picture, and now, although some plant and even animal species that still exist reproduce without sex — bananas, starfish, and Komodo dragons are examples — sex has become the dominant method of reproduction.

Scientists wonder why.

7-water-flea-laguna-designGet your mind out of the gutter for a moment.  It’s a fair question, because scientists point out that sexual activity takes time and energy, frequently involves elaborate rituals — dating alone can be both expensive and time-consuming — and is therefore a lot less efficient than cloning.  Organisms that reproduce through cloning (which, incidentally, are entirely female, males not being needed) presumably could reproduce much more rapidly and easily than organisms that used the sexual approach.  As one scientist, Dr. Stuart Auld of the Faculty of Life Sciences of the University of Stirling, put it:  “Sex explains the presence of the peacock’s tail, the stag’s antlers and the male bird of paradise’s elaborate dance. But if a female of any of these species produced offspring on her own, without sex, her offspring should come to dominate, while the other females watch the redundant males fighting and dancing. So, why are we not surrounded by clonal organisms?”

Sex, fighting, dancing, and redundant males.  What could be more interesting than that?

Dr. Auld and his colleagues came up with an ingenious approach to trying to test why sex might have evolved.  They found an organism that reproduces both through cloning and through sex, the common water flea, and they compared offspring of the same mothers that were produced through cloning to those produced through sex.  They found that the sex-produced offspring were much more resistant to disease and parasites than their cloned sisters.  Sex evidently allows the genetic material to be mixed up and also shared, and organisms that use the sex route therefore get an advantage in avoiding illness.

Dr. Auld concludes:  “The ever-present need to evade disease can explain why sex persists in the natural world in spite of the costs.”

So there you have it.