Healthcare, medicine & pharmaceuticals

Sleeping is the new dieting

Western societies are sleep deprived and as a result people are becoming “clumsy, stupid, unhappy and dead” as a result according to Dr Stanley Coren (author of The Sleep Thieves). Social observers have consequently coined the term TATT Syndrome to describe people that are Tired All The Time. Whether you buy in to such phraseology the condition seems real enough and sleep is set to be one of the next big social and medical issues. The figures certainly speak for themselves. Back in 1910 Americans slept for an average of 9.0 hours every night. The figure is now 6.9 hours. In Australia there were 4 sleep clinics in 1985. The number is now 70. Back in the US the National Sleep Foundation says that one in seven people in the US suffers from some kind of treatable sleep problem and there are now 84 officially classified sleep disorders including snoring, apnoea, insomnia and narcolepsy. These are treated with a range of pharmacological and therapeutic solutions. In a similar vein a new book called 'Hurried Women Syndrome' says that 50 million women in the US lead hurried lives which lead to weight gain, fatigue, mood swings and low libido while an article in the Harvard Business Review claims that overworked (thus under-slept) executives are showing ADHD like symptoms. Despite this sleep remains a Cinderella area of medical research and one of the last remaining wilderness areas in peoples' lives. But what's getting people really agitated about sleep is that there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that lack of proper sleep in linked to everything from obesity, irritability and depression, to an increase in road fatalities. In the1980s sleep got a bad press and was widely seen as wasted space - if you were a serious achiever you didn't indulge - but this is now slowly changing.

Ref: Australian Financial Review (AUS) February 2005, 'The Big Sleep', J.Macken. See also: Time (US) 20 December 2004. 'Why we sleep', Sydney Morning Herald (AUS) 27 March 2005, 'Get up, sleepy head, the day's a-wasting', J.Ireland.

Young blood

Research by Thomas Rando at Stamford University in California suggests that older people might recover from injuries faster if they were given drugs developed from the blood of young people. In an experiment pairs of mice were joined together to create artificially conjoined twins. The result was that old mice connected to young mice regenerated muscle cells much faster than pairs of old mice. Apparently the effect has nothing to do with stems cells contained in the young blood either. This suggests that older bodies repair themselves more slowly because of a lack of some signal or other rather than stem cells losing their regenerative ability. This finding is unlikely to result in any anti-ageing products any time soon but it could go some way to helping companies develop various 'fast repair' products for older people in the future.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 19 February 2005. Young blood restores body's healing powers. B.Homes.

Listening to patients

Back in 2001 James Gimzewski (a US nanotech expert) had an epiphany - if human cells have tiny moving parts then surely they must produce tiny vibrations. This in turn would create tiny noises. In theory the sound produced by cells would also vary depending on stage of growth (or health). In other words it should be possible to listen for cancer. The idea is not that far fetched. When a cell becomes cancerous its 'machinery' changes form, which means that cells do indeed have distinctive vibrations. The study of these noises has now been termed sonobiology and the first paper on the subject was published last year in the American journal Science. And if you think this all sounds a bit spooky you're right. Yeast cells placed in alcohol apparently give off a hissing sound and when they finally die they emit an eerie 'scream' (so eerie in fact that a film director recently asked Gimzewski if he could record the sound for a forthcoming horror movie.

Ref: New York Times (US) 12 December 2005. 'Listening for cancer', C.Thompson.

Watching for illness

Russian researchers say that they have found a fast way to detect whether someone is about to become ill - by looking into their eyes. Apparently the eye is one of the very first parts of the human body to register a temperature increase which is often a prelude to infection or a more serious condition. Add a dose of technology to this idea and you come up with highly sensitive thermal imaging devices which can not only be used on individuals with their consent but also on crowds without. The latter could be especially useful in targeting large crowds of people in places like airports and railways stations during flu outbreaks. Maybe one day your camera phone will be able to diagnose you and then email your doctor to fix an appointment.

Ref: The Times (UK) 12 February 2005 'Pupil Power' quoting Informnauka (Russia)

More crystal ball gazing

What's in store for 2005 in the area of medicine and well-being? According to a group of experts put together by the Times newspaper, innovations and trends will include the following:
  1. Consolidation of work on stem cells including a significant development in deriving stem cells from bone marrow
  2. In the US plastic surgeons have begun advertising for face transplant recipients. This will drive discussion about ethical issues and the psychological impacts of transplants on recipients and donor families
  3. Lots of egotistical excitement in the area of gene research using chimps
  4. Short workout fitness training and exercise at home programmes due to time restraints
  5. Breakthrough research on the causes of asthma
  6. Products for people over the age of 65 that have (or want to have) sex - about 50% of people over 70 claim to be sexually active
  7. Quick and cheap 'dipstick' tests for Chlamydia
  8. Growth of organic ingredients and science imitating nature products. Also cosmetic products aimed at older women
  9. Diets tailored to individual body styles and lifestyles
  10. Rise of spirituality including a boom in angel-related merchandise.
Ref: The Times (UK) 1 January 2005. 'Welcome to a year that's made to measure', J.Nash.