Do supercharged brains give rise to autism?

September 24, 2008

STATS’ Maia Szalavitz has a fascinating article in this week’s issue of New Scientist. She reports on the “intense world” hypothesis, which suggests that

all of autism’s baffling and sometimes incongruous features – social problems, language impairment and obsessive behaviour, sometimes allied to dazzling savant abilities – can be explained by a single neurological defect: a hyperactive brain that makes ordinary, everyday sensory experiences utterly overwhelming.

Unfortunately, the article requires subscription… but here’s the link.

The New York Times shrinks Dublin

September 22, 2008

Dublin, as New York, is both a city and larger political and geographic entity, in this case the term is county rather than state but the reach is the same. And within the city, there is the colloquial “city,” the inner historic and commercial center, and the outer residential areas.

In the New York Times “Portrait of Dublin as a boomtown” (an unfortunate description given that the year began with predictions of recession), David Amsden, the Times intrepid cartographer, confuses all:

“No matter how large its economy, Dublin remains a city still very much defined by its actual size: to even call it a city, in fact, is something of a misnomer. A million people live inside Dublin’s official borders, which are such that you can literally walk anywhere in about half an hour.”

Even the most fleet of foot flâneur would be unlikely to cover more than two miles in 30 minutes, which means, according to the Times, one million people live in four square miles. This would make Dublin one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with 250,000 people per square mile, on a par with Mumbai and Hong Kong (New York by comparison has 83,000 people per square mile – and it has skyscrapers). While not physically impossible – each Dubliner would have approximately 111 square feet to him or herself at ground level – it is practically impossible given the low aspirations of most buildings.

For the record, Dublin County is 356 square miles, of which Dublin City occupies approximately 45.5 square miles; the population for the county is 1,186,159, while the number of whom live in the city proper is 505, 379, according to 2006 preliminary census figures (Source, Encyclopedia Britannica, and the fact that I grew up in Dublin).

For a turkey, Thanksgiving is an increasingly unlikely event

September 19, 2008

As Nassim Nicholas Taleb, probability researcher and author of The Black Swan, explains

A Turkey is fed for a 1000 days—every days [sic] confirms to its statistical department that the human race cares about its welfare “with increased statistical significance”. On the 1001st day, the turkey has a surprise.

Now substitute investment banking for the turkey…

Controversial trial on autism “therapy” stopped

September 18, 2008

Chelation, a therapy used to deal with acute heavy metal poisoning, has long had a reputation as a dangerous quack treatment for autism. Now, as the Associated Press reports, a clinical trial that was going to test chelation against a placebo in autistic children has been dropped because the National Institute for Mental Health was concerned about side effects.

Surgeon blogger Orac, a longtime critic of chelation and other medical quackery, writes:

Overall, it was an excellent decision to kill this misbegotten and ill-conceived study. Just because a lot of quacks have convinced parents of autistic children that chelation therapy does anything more than line their pocketbooks is not in and of itself adequate justification to do a clinical trial. Certainly it’s no reason to bypass the usual series of studies necessary to justify and lead up to a clinical trial, including basic science, cell culture models, and animal models, required to provide scientific justification before testing a therapy in humans. And, once again, no matter what the results of the study, the true believers wouldn’t believe it anyway. In fact, they’d declare it a conspiracy, just as the antivaccinationists at Age of Autism will no doubt soon be calling it.

Orac has written more about the background to the trial and why it was unethical here (pay attention to the comments, which add even more depth to the scientific evidence against chelation).

What kills kids

September 15, 2008

Some “investigative” journalists, such as Philip and Alice Shabecoff believe that trace exposures to chemicals are responsible for an epidemic of childhood diseases, deformities, and deaths. As these authors note in their new book, “Poisoned Profits”

“There is abundant evidence that the trillions of pounds of hazardous pollutants that have been poured into the environment are, in all likelihood, responsible for much of the sickness, suffering and, too often, death of America’s children.”

While the Shabecoffs appear to be interested only in investigating claims that support their thesis (hence the quotation marks around the word investigative), real statistics tell us a different story, as today’s New York Times reveals in an excellent article on what actually, and tragically, kills kids.

The leading culprit is accidental death from motor vehicle accidents, fires or drownings, which kill over 4,000 children aged between one and 14 each year in the U.S. Almost half of these deaths involve motor vehicles. Unintentional drownings account for roughly 30 percent of child fatalities, with marked variance in race: the rate of drowning among African American children is 3.2 times that of white children, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Second on the list is cancer, which claims 1,377 children each year. Cancer mortality in children has been steadily decreasing in the U.S, although incidence rates have been increasing, a phenomenon which is partly explained by better case identification through diagnostic technologies such as MRI; however much remains unknown about the causes of childhood cancers, but incident rates vary depending on gender, age, race, and ethnicity.

As for crime, David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire tells the Times that “children are often the victims of crimes, but not necessarily of the sort that keep parents awake at night.” Getting hit by other children, notably by siblings, is the most common form of assault, while family members and those in positions of trust are much more likely to inflict harm than complete strangers (about 115 cases of strangers abducting children occur each year).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and the Times, the take home message is kids should sit in the back seats of cars and wear helmets when skateboarding or bicycling (a measure in Canada mandating bike helmets led to a 52 percent decrease in bicycle-related deaths).

Ironically, the biggest risk factors for childhood injury are those activities which in principle are good for kids: sports; and yet according to the CDC, high school sports account for up to two million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits, and 30,000 hospitalizations annually.

Unvaccinated children behind worrying measles increase

September 8, 2008

As another new study fails to find any connection between the MMR vaccine and autism, there has been a series of articles warning that the decision not to vaccinate children, for whatever reason, is allowing the disease to spread in the U.S.

Scientific American reports that the number of measles cases in the U.S. for 2008 is more than double that of the annual rate for the previous six years. From January to July 2008, there were 131 cases of measles versus an average of 63 cases per year over the previous six years – all of which were infections caught abroad.  The most recent cases in the States, however, were driven by local transmission among unvaccinated people, mostly children. As WebMD reports:

In Washington, an unvaccinated child likely caught measles at a church conference attended by 3,000 junior high school students, some from foreign nations. That child infected seven other children in her household; they spread measles to 11 other people. Of the 19 cases, 16 were school-age children. Eleven of these kids were homeschooled; none was vaccinated because of their parents’ beliefs.

In Illinois, a teenager who recently returned from Italy — where there are ongoing measles outbreaks — seems to have infected four unvaccinated girls ages 10 to 14. Eventually, 30 people came down with measles. All but one of the cases were children or teens aged 8 months to 17 years. Cases included 25 homeschooled children whose parents held anti-vaccination beliefs.

Vaccination against measles is crucial because the disease is highly contagious; Jane Seward, MB, MPH, deputy director of the CDC’s viral disease division, points out that in a room of 100 unvaccinated people, 90 to 95 could catch the disease from one infected person coughing. Seward tells Scientific American’s blog that “people have forgotten what measles looks like and have forgotten how infectious it is…

Back in the early part of the century, it killed thousands of people a year. The biggest year was 10,000. Over the years, those deaths declined but in the 1960s, right before the vaccine was developed, it killed 400 to 500 children every year out of 500,000 reported cases at that time. Three to four million cases actually occurred, because not all cases get reported.

Of those 500,000 reported cases, there were 4,000 cases of encephalitis a year. That’s brain infection and can have some serious sequellae, like retardation and things like that. Measles can also cause pneumonia…

Some parents think that American medical care is such that it can treat any complication on measles. They’re not right on that. Medical care is the same as the 1960s in terms of encephalitis. There’s very little that can be done to alter that outcome. And there is no treatment for measles as such. There are no antivirals to use.

The latest study by researchers at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health on the connection between the MMR vaccine and autism compared children with both autism and gastro intestinal (GI) problems  and children with just GI problems. Cells were biopsied to see if they contained genetic sequences of the measles virus. The objective was to

determine whether children with GI disturbances and autism are more likely than children with GI disturbances alone to have MV RNA and/or inflammation in bowel tissues and if autism and/or GI episode onset relate temporally to receipt of MMR.

The results provided strong evidence that there was no connection between the vaccine and autism.


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