Issue 87

Introducing The Aging Effect, the telomere positron effect, and the history of the FDA

Jan. 18, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here. Love Scrap Facts? Consider hitting the “like” button, or tell your friends to sign up!

Population trends of the past decade are going to have lasting implications on the next one and beyond.

Found while reporting: Slow US population growth will create high demand for caregiving.

Friend, I’ve been writing a lot about aging a lot, and I love it. I do this through reporting on health and neurodegenerative disease a lot. But ultimately, I want to show that although older adults tend to be forgotten (or made fun of), they’re not all that different from younger adults at their core.

This mission is more important than ever when you look at the US population growth in the 2010s:

The natural population change is still increasing, but at a decreasing rate. When the two lines below cross:

We’ll enter a shrinking population—much like Japan has now.

Having a lower birth rate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can mean that people who can become pregnant have access to reproductive health care that empowers them to make the choice to have children. But it does make it harder to find ways to support all of the older adults who aren’t working, or have more complicated health needs (and really, anyone with complicated health needs).

In the next decade, aging populations are going to change the economies, health care systems, and overall infrastructure of the US and beyond. I’m thrilled to say one of my reporting priorities in 2020 tracking all the countries are adapting over time. You can follow the Quartz Obsession The Aging Effect for more stories like this one throughout the year.

Telomeres may do more than track cellular aging.

Found while reporting: A biotech startup thinks its idea could cure dementia—but scientists have their doubts.

Last issue, I wrote about the 10-year anniversary of the discovery of telomerase. It’s that enzyme that builds up our telomeres in cells, but is also pretty closely tied to cancer. If you missed it, you can read the story here.

This week, I wrote a story about a company created on the idea that a gene therapy introducing telomerase could actually be the treatment for not just Alzheimer’s, but all forms of dementia.

The thinking is that in addition to functioning like tree rings that depict a cell’s age, telomeres also regulate other genes. So as telomeres shorten, they tell other genes coding for different proteins to produce fewer or sloppier products that are less efficient at their jobs. Over time, it’s these insufficient proteins resulting from shrinking telomeres that lead to dementia or other health problems related to aging. The scientific name for the phenomenon is the telomere positron effect but scientists still don’t fully understand it.

Could this be a viable treatment for dementia? Who knows! At this point, without a cure for dementia all ideas are worth exploring. But this theory is indeed pretty out-there, and because of the ties to cancer it’d have to be well-studied before actually being tried in humans.

The US Food and Drug Administration didn’t check to see if marketed drugs actually worked until 1962.

Found while reporting: The US Food and Drug Administration is green lighting new drugs faster than ever.

When the FDA was first created in 1906, when medicine was essentially a free for all. A lot of over-the-counter drugs—often peddled by people with questionable medical knowledge—had ingredients like alcohol, opium, and cocaine. (True, they likely made people feel better, but didn’t address the root cause of anything and ultimately had a lot of undesirable long-term consequences.) The FDA’s job then was to make sure that these medicines had ingredient labels, and that a doctor had in fact written the patient a prescription for a specific, “safe” dose.

It didn’t really help. So in 1938, Congress passed another law saying that all medications had to have demonstrated data proving it was nontoxic, but limited the FDAs power to within the first 60 days it was on the market. Also, a bit of a dud of a law for regulation.

So in 1962, Congress passed another law that forced drug companies to conduct these clinical trials and present the data to them for review, much like the system we have today. The switch was inspired by thalidomide—an anti-nausea drug that ended up causing severe birth defects in the children of people who took it while pregnant.

But there was another problem: Congress didn’t approve the FDA’s budget to be big enough to review a massive amount of data from potential drugs in a timely manner. So to speed up the review process, it passed the Prescription Drug User Fee Act in 1992, which allowed drug companies to give money to the FDA when submitting a new drug application.

In theory, this is so the FDA could hire enough people to review these applications in a timely manner. But it still caused me to raise an eyebrow. Especially because in 2018, the FDA collected $908 million from drug companies. That’s a lot of financial support.

Animal of the issue: The Taliabu Grasshopper-warbler

The Taliab Grasshopper-warbler—a small bird with a grey breast and brown wings with a black beak. Image credit to Ames Eaton/Birdtour Asia

You bet I’m going to take a second to talk about the 10 new species of birds—including the above warbler—described in a paper published Jan. 9! These birds were all found in a single six-week trip to Indonesia. My colleague Alex Ossola has the story here.

I am not a bird expert, but one thing that has brought me a lot of joy recently is the game Wingspan. It’s a strategy game involving collecting bird cards and laying eggs, but it’s also gorgeous. Every bird card features a unique realistic rendition of a bird, and a fact about that creature. It’s a great way to spend time if you’re trying to get away from screens in 2020, and also to just appreciate the sheer diversity of this class of animals.

Stuff I learned from others:

In a study about MDMA, scientists accidentally gave participants meth (the paper’s being retracted). Vulture vomit (a defense mechanism) is so corrosive it eats away at metal radio towers. Nursing homes may charge hidden fees to do things like administer medication. Teens are surprisingly happy to have their phones taken away. Anytime we burn anything, there’s a gas 300x more potent than CO2 being released. The internet is making bullying and breakups far worse than they were before.

If you love Scrap Facts, consider hitting the “like” button at the bottom of this page, or sending it to a friend. You can also send your own scrap facts to to be featured in future editions. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

Issue 86

Seal flu, a productive Christmas, and reading clinical trials

Dec. 31, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here. Love Scrap Facts? Consider hitting the “like” button, or tell your friends to sign up!

It’s the last issue of the year! Scrap Facts is a labor of love. If you’ve loved (or even moderately enjoyed) all the Scrap Facts throughout 2019, please consider tipping me through my Venmo. All donations go to my chocolate/granny smith apple fund.

One of the major flu strains this year is likely harbored by…harbor seals.

Found while reporting: The flu is worse this holiday season than it was last year.

I’d like to add “flu season” to the list of life’s certainties.

Every year flu season rolls around (from about October through March for us in the northern hemisphere, the opposite time of year for those in the southern hemisphere) it’s different. It seems to be more active than usual for this time of year, in part because a strain of the virus called influenza B is more prevalent this year. Normally, influenza B only pops up at the end of the year; influenza A is the star of the show.

For most people, this is a negligible difference: both strains make us sick with the same nasty symptoms. For virologists, the difference is in the proteins that make up the core of the virus. For public health experts, the difference is in the trouble these viruses cause: Influenza A tends to be the one that causes pandemics, whereas influenza B can lead to mere seasonal epidemics.

For seals, though, the difference is that one can make them sick. Influenza B antibodies have been found in both harbor and grey seals. Because antibodies are the result of prior infections (or vaccines!), it means seals have encountered the virus before. They could also be a reservoir for the virus—meaning they could pass a version of it to us—just like some birds or pigs could spread versions of influenza A to us.

There are influenza C viruses, which cause less severe illness, and D viruses, which only trouble cows—not people.

If you haven’t gotten a flu shot, please consider getting one! It’s not too late, and even if it doesn’t protect you from the flu entirely, it can make it easier to get through.

One of the biggest discoveries in longevity research happened on Christmas Day.

Found while reporting: 10 years after the Nobel Prize, telomeres are still a murky lead in longevity research.

This Christmas Day (Dec. 25), I spent the day gorging myself on Chinese food and playing pool. Thirty-five years ago in 1984, Carol Greider, then a graduate student in biology, had a much more productive holiday. She discovered the enzyme telomerase, and won the Nobel prize for it in 2009. At the time, she was 23 years old.

Telomerase is the enzyme that builds up telomeres—which are the part of our chromosomes that act like a little genetic hourglass. Every time our cells divide, our telomeres shorten. When they get too short, our cells stop dividing, and they die. It’s a mechanism of aging—although there’s no one source of aging.

Longevity researchers have jumped on telomeres and telomerase as the one way to stop, or maybe even reverse aging. If we can just get cells to rebuild their telomeres, maybe cells can keep dividing.

Alas, there’s one major problem. Telomerase is only in a handful of healthy cells (blood, sperm/egg, and some GI tract), but it shows up in 95% of cancer cells. Playing with telomerase, therefore, runs the risk of causing cancer.

Instead, most longevity researchers have switched their thinking: They’re on the hunt for all the ways that telomeres shorten outside of regular cell division.

Bonus fact: Most enzymes, which help a particular chemical reaction occur, are usually just giant proteins. Telomerase, though, has a special genetic material component called RNA—making it more biologically impressive.

A note on healthy skepticism with clinical trials.

Found while reporting: Biogen’s latest Alzheimer’s drug trials will change dementia drug research and Rare disease drugs stand out in 2019’s top-performing pharma stocks.

Soon, in the early new year, the drug company Biogen will likely file for approval for their Alzheimer’s-slowing drug, aducanumab. It’s an amyloid-protein antibody, given through monthly IVs to patients with mild Alzheimer’s disease, and it seems to clear out amyloid while slightly improving cognitive function.

It’s huge news: There hasn’t been a new drug for Alzheimer’s in over a decade, and lots of desperate people are likely willing to pay anything for a new hope against the disease. And even for a drug to get approved at all is a moderate deal—only about 13.8% of drugs that go through the clinical trial process make it to market.

But just because a drug is approved doesn’t mean it’ll work.

The US Food and Drug Administration requires drug companies to go through three clinical trials—meaning, in people. The first looks at whether the drug is safe in healthy people. They’re small, and they pay. The second is a little bigger, and looks at whether the drug actually works, and the third, which involves thousands of people, sees if it’s better than existing treatments, and what side effects may occur.

The aducanumab trials—two identical trials—involved nearly 3,000 people with Alzheimer’s. That may seem like a lot, but in the grand scheme of things it isn’t: the people who participate in clinical trials are usually homogenous. Alzheimer’s disease—or any condition, for that matter—is very diverse in who it affects, and how it manifests in the body and how it needs to be treated. Notably, these trials were also not successful at first; Biogen originally discontinued the clinical trials because it seemed like it wasn’t working. Not confidence-inspiring.

If (when) Biogen submits aducanumab to be approved, the FDA will review how it did the trials, and the results, and then decide whether or not it should be approved. I say all of this not to say the drug is bad—it’s definitely inspiring—but it’s not wise to put all your hopes on it, or any drug.

Animal(s) of the issue: the 412 new species discovered this year

Scientists at the Natural History Museum in London added over 400 new species of plants and animals to the known list this year. It was a lot of invertebrates and beetles, and a handful of moths and butterflies, and a couple snakes. It just goes to show that we still don’t know all that’s out there.

Sadly, though, we’ll likely never know all the creatures we share the planet with. Because of human activity that leads to animal extinction, “we are losing species faster than we can discover them,” Tim Littlewood, the Museum's Executive Director of Science, said in a statement.

Did you know that the creators of the Pokémon universe have noticed this trend too? Corsola, a coral-like creature, has been bleached out to a ghost of its former self—the same fate as many real corals as a result of ocean acidification.

Corsola—before and after. Image credit to The Pokémon Company.

My colleague Daniel Wolfe made an awesome quiz that tests your ability to pick out Pokémon from actual species discovered this year. It’s fun! And cool that the stark realities of climate change are reflected in Pokémon.

Stuff I learned from others:

Ben and Jerry’s may not be the cow-friendly ice cream we’ve always thought it was. Armadillos help scientists study the differences in identical twins. Kelly Clarkson is coming for Mariah Carey’s Christmas dominance. Holland wants you to call it “the Netherlands” now.

If you love Scrap Facts, consider hitting the “like” button at the bottom of this page, or sending it to a friend. You can also send your own scrap facts to to be featured in future editions. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

Issue 85

Disrupting dementia

Dec. 5, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here. Love Scrap Facts? Consider hitting the “like” button, or tell your friends to sign up!

Disrupting dementia

As promised, friend, I’ve published a full series on the costs of dementia, and the solutions scientists and policymakers are devising to lower them. Tackling dementia from all angles—finding it sooner, coming up with treatments that actually , and changing the way we treat people living with dementia and their families—can all help.

You can read in full here.

If you’d like to learn more about dementia, my editor Katie Palmer and I are going to be on a conference call tomorrow, Dec. 6, at 11 am US eastern time. You can access it here. You can reply to this email with questions, or ask them in the call tomorrow. Hope to see you there! (It’ll be recorded, too.)

You’ll need a Quartz membership to read these stories. For half off, sign up using the promo codes “COGNITION” or KFOLEY3089.”

The cognition test Trump bragged about acing is only catches a handful of cognitive problems.

Found while reporting: If dementia can’t be prevented, can it at least be detected early?

One of the major issues with dementia is that there’s no good way to detect it before a person actually has cognitive symptoms.

Practically, this means people learn they have dementia once it has substantially progressed, and couldn’t be treated even if there were an effective drug to slow its progression. (There’s one on the horizon! But it won’t be a fix for everyone.) Noticeable cognitive trouble is the result of brain deterioration after years of damage has already been done, and it doesn’t seem like that damage can be reversed.

The way that health care providers can do a quick assessment on someone’s cognitive are through a couple of 10 to 15 minute tests. The most common are tests called the mini-mental state evaluation (MMSE) and the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA). Both tests are scored out of 30; generally a score of 27-26 or below indicate a person is experiencing some issues. They haven’t been updated in roughly 20 years.

These tests are great at picking out people who have definitely experienced major cognitive decline who need to see a specialist. For healthy adults, they can’t tell you much. One of the most famous MoCA test questions involves identifying pictures of animals—which you’d expect even a child to be able to ace.

Last year, President Trump had a doctor give him a MoCA exam, just to prove that he is a “very stable genius,” as he calls himself. He scored a 30/30, which his supporters argued was evidence that any concerns about his cognition and ability to lead the country were off-base.

This isn’t exactly true. Scoring a 30/30 just means he doesn’t have noticeable cognitive decline. There could be more subtle changes it can’t pick up. And, as Vox pointed out, the test says nothing about personality changes or judgment—both of which researchers have identified as potential markers of cognitive decline.

The founder of hospice was a scientist ahead of her time.

Found while reporting: Next-generation dementia care could learn a lesson from cancer care.

If I could have lunch with anyone on the planet, one of my top choices would be Cicely Saunders, the founder of hospice care.

Hospice care is a form of palliative care. Hospice is for the last 6 months of someone’s life, when they’ve elected to forego life-extending treatments and focus on comfort instead. Palliative care in general focuses on a person’s goals and comfort throughout the course of any chronic condition, and can be changed over time to meet a person’s goals.

Saunders served as a nurse in World War II and then worked as a social worker for people with terminal cancer. She saw that, at the time, doctors essentially ignored a lot of people who were almost certainly going to die, despite the fact that they were in tremendous amounts of pain. This suffering was put into stark context when Saunders met—and likely fell in love with—a man named David Tasma. Tasma was one of the people she cared for her who dying at the age of 40. He allegedly told her "I’ll be a window in your home,” and left her a sum of money to help her start to find a home to care for people who were dying.

Eventually, she brought this up to a friend—a male orthopedic surgeon—who told her that she was right, but that no one would take her seriously as a nurse; she’d need to become a doctor.

At 33, she enrolled in med school. Then, she got to work: she knew that she’d need large institutional support to get her idea of alleviating suffering off the ground. So, she created an experiment and obtained testimonies from 1,100 people dying of cancer in her care at St. Joseph’s, one of the first hospice’s run by nuns. Almost every one reflected that their quality of life was better with constant pain management.

These results were the start of relationships with giants in the field like the National Health Service and the American Cancer Society—which made a hospice, and palliative care in general, an option for first terminally ill people with cancer, but now more broadly anyone who needs it.

Saunders passed away from breast cancer in 2005; her obituary in the BMJ is full of other fascinating details about her life. She was clearly an astute, compassionate person who was so smart about conducting research before it was remotely mainstream to be a woman in science.

Dementia care is filled with tiny tragedies every day that science can’t account for.

Found while reporting: Science can’t fix dementia’s most heartbreaking problem.

This is technically not a scrap fact, but more of a realization.

As a science reporter, I talk to researchers all the time who see a clear path for the solution they’re working toward. They have a set number of experiments they plan to run, which will confirm or rule out hypotheses along the way, and then they can find the answers the want. It’s a long journey, but there’s a plan.

I thought there’d be some kind of answer about what the ideal dementia care and planning would look like, so I asked some of the leading experts in the field. When they couldn’t give me concrete answers, I turned to people in my life who have gone through it themselves.

What I learned is that those answers don’t exist and never will. Each case of dementia is as unique as the person it affects, and no matter what, it’s full of the big tragedies. We often hear about the big ones, like accidents or scary trips to the hospital, or out-of-control bills.

But there are smaller ones that get less attention: My parents, for example, got my grandfather a small dog to keep him company when he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Grandpa John loved Smokey, but he had a hard time remembering that he had to hold onto the leash; one day, Smokey was hit by a car. This was one of many tiny tragedies that add to the cumulative weight of a dementia diagnosis along the way.

I’m really grateful that my friend Tom, my parents, and a man named Jay Reinstein talked to me for what ultimately turned into the reported essay above. It’s clear that there will never be a perfect care, even with the best resources available. Caregivers just have to do the best they can, one day at a time.

Animal of the issue: Baby Yoda

That last section was so somber, I wanted to leave you with something uplifting.

True, baby Yoda is not a creature that lives on Earth, but the internet (myself included) has LOST ITS MIND over how cute they are. (Friend of the newsletter Victoria Edel pointed out that we have no idea how gender works for non-human creatures like baby Yoda. Until we learn more, baby Yoda gets singular “they.”) If you have somehow missed this cultural phenomenon, now’s your chance to take in the star of the new Disney+ show, Baby Yoda—er, The Mandalorian, I mean.

Here’s serious food for thought, though: Our perception of Earth animals can affect our efforts to save them. Real cute and charismatic animals, like pandas and otters, get more conservation funding than less aesthetically appealing creatures, like vultures. Additionally, people may also perceive that iconic animals that seem to be everywhere in the wild, even when they aren’t. The future of actual animal conservation comes from educating ourselves about which animals need our help the most, regardless of their looks.

Stuff I learned from others:

Honestly, you’re probably not gonna get much done in December anyway. Santa takes your data privacy very seriously. That Crispr-baby news was based on pretty crappy that never got published. TikTok basically tried to penalize people who were bullied by down-regulating their videos on the app. The League thinks the future of dating is all virtual, and nothing can go wrong with random video speed dates. Carbon dioxide kills most animals who venture into a remote valley of Russia. A vape gave one person a lung condition common in metal workers.

If you love Scrap Facts, consider hitting the “like” button at the bottom of this page, or sending it to a friend. You can also send your own scrap facts to to be featured in future editions. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

Issue 84

We're (nearly) back!

Dec. 1, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here. Love Scrap Facts? Consider hitting the “like” button, or tell your friends to sign up!

We’re (nearly) back!

Brian Kennedy, a biochemist at the National University of Singapore, has called aging the “climate change of health care.”

He was referring to the fact that globally, the proportion of people older than 65 is increasing while fertility rates are dropping, thanks to more access to health care, sanitation, and reproductive rights. But the flip side of this is that older adults tend to have many more medical needs. With fewer younger adults around, it’s not clear how societies are going to support their aging populations’ needs.

I agree with Kennedy that our aging demographics are a lot like climate change in that they present huge, daunting challenges we don’t know how to overcome, and frankly haven’t prepared for adequately.

But there’s a positive comparison, too: Like climate change, there are a lot of really smart people out there who are coming up with ingenious scientific advances and comprehensive policies to address aging—and even improve the quality of all of our lives over time.

Throughout the month of November, I reported and wrote a series of stories looking at some of these forward-thinking solutions—particularly as they apply to addressing dementia, or severe, progressive cognitive decline over time. Dementia is the single most expensive age-related illness on the planet, and age is the number one risk factor. At the moment, there are no ways to prevent dementia, cures, or treatments. Hopefully, that’ll change during my lifetime. In the meantime, though, there are some ways we can lower these costs, including detecting it earlier, administering effective drugs in these early stages, and making sure people who are living with dementia have access to affordable, personalized care.

Tomorrow, Dec. 2, all five stories will drop. In addition to stories about science and care policy, I’ve written a more personal essay about the parts of dementia science will never be able to solve: the heartbreak of caring for your loved ones who develop cognitive impairment. My colleague on the Things team, Youyou Zhou, has also contributed a handy, interactive calculator to look at the likely dementia rates in where you live by the time you hit 70.

If you’re not already a Quartz member, you can sign up here. For half off, you can use the promo code “KFOLEY3089.”

I’ve be sending a Scrap Facts on Thursday, Dec. 5, with my favorite tidbits from the series. On Friday, Dec. 6, I’ll be on a conference call at 11 am US eastern for members to talk about the series, and answer any questions you all have. I’ll send a link in Thursday’s email.

I hope you read the series, and welcome your feedback. In the meantime, here’s some other Scrap Facts to tide you over:

A bridge renovation made Austin, Texas the home to 1.5 million guests fo the summer.

I got to go to Austin as part of my reporting for this series. As of the 1980s, when the city rebuilt the Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin became the home to North America’s largest urban bat colony. About 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats hang out there from about March to September. I missed them, sadly, but I did love how much the people of Austin love their bats. Really, we should all be such bat enthusiasts.

One of the biggest kitchen appliance flops missed the point of cookies.

Found while reporting: To find the best tech for everyone, look to older adults.

Big tech has a hard job: They have to convince us to need new products we got along perfectly fine without before. Some of most successful new technology therefore solves problems we didn’t know we had, Brian McMahon, the founder of Segment International, a California-based design consulting company, told me.

Take bread makers. Although making bread from scratch can be fun and rewarding, it’s a pretty labor-intensive process with all the kneading required. A bread making machine solves that problem, even if you add all the ingredients yourself.

McMahon told me that back in the 90s, a company that had huge success with a bread making machine flopped horrifically when they tried to make a quick cookie-making machine. But cookies don’t take that long to make, and even if you make them from scratch, it’s a fun process that families and friends can do together. Plus, there’s already break-and-bake cookie dough for when you want just one or two. The company was trying to solve a problem that wasn’t actually a problem.

McMahon couldn’t give me the name of the company because of the nature of his work, but apparently it gave up on its idea of essentially an Easy Bake oven for adults.

Our brains start to experience minor cognitive decline just about when they finish fully forming.

Found while reporting: How the human brain stays young even as we age.

The very front part of our brains—which help us control our impulses and plan ahead—don’t finish creating the networks among neurons until we’re in our mid-20s. This is one of the major reasons that teens and young adults tend to be a little more reckless than those of us who are a little more seasoned.

But alas, shortly after this portion of the brain forms—peak maturity! Peak adulthood!—the effects of aging start to hit. For our brains, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: While learning some kinds of information, like details about names or dates, becomes a little more difficult, connecting concepts and themes and discounting the future gets easier. It’s in part what makes some older adults better leaders.

Luckily, the vast majority of us won’t experience more than a little cognitive decline over time. This is because our brains are wonderfully dynamic, adaptive organs filled with redundant systems. If one fails, neurons can simply rely on another system to take care of things. We hardly notice anything, aside from simple stuff like using calendars more enthusiastically.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

If you love Scrap Facts, consider hitting the “like” button at the bottom of this page, or sending it to a friend. You can also send your own scrap facts to to be featured in future editions. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

Issue 83

Brainwaves, sound objects, and dubiously-dubbed safe ingredients

Oct. 26, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here. Love Scrap Fact? Consider hitting the “like” button, or tell your friends to sign up!

To read more Quartz stories, you can become a member by signing up here. For half off, you can use the promo code “KFOLEY3089”.

Your brain makes waves for all occasions—and they can be therapeutic, too.

Found while reporting: The future of Alzheimer’s treatment can’t bank on just one drug.

The big story in the news this week was that for the first time in over a decade, an Alzheimer’s drug passed a last-stage clinical trial. This means that it could hit the market as early as 2020, when Biogen, its manufacturer, files for approval from the US Food and Drug Administration.

I have a lot of thoughts about why this news should revitalize other avenues of Alzheimer’s research, too. You can read them in this Twitter thread. Or you can read the article above! But I’m not gonna recap it here—instead, I’m gonna talk about brainwaves.

This week at the Society of Neuroscience—a very prestigious meeting of the minds (heh) for top researchers in the field—a researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology named Li-Huei Tsai spoke about a new potential therapy for Alzheimer’s: Flashing lights and a clicking noise played 40 times per second for an hour at a time.

If you’re not familiar with the work (which I wasn’t as of a few weeks ago), it sounds like pseudoscience. But it turns out, promising mouse studies have shown that when light and sound hit a certain frequency—roughly around 40Hz—groups of neurons in the brain start emitting electrical charges at the same frequency. And somehow, these oscillating electrical frequencies, aka brainwaves, change the neuron’s collective behavior. They can call in other kinds of brain cells, like microglia, which work like the brain’s housekeepers to clean out clumps of amyloid and other gunk.

This brainwave frequency is called a gamma rhythm. These same oscillations happen when we’re engaged in mentally stimulating tasks (like reading this newsletter) or going through rapid-eye movement in sleep.

We have other brain waves, too: Delta waves, the slowest, occur in deep sleep. Theta waves happen when we’re barely awake, alpha waves happen when we’re awake but closing our eyes, and beta waves happen when we’re awake, but relaxing. In other words, the faster the brain waves, the more brain power we’re using. This Nature article breaks this all down in a pretty graphic.

Not all of our neurons oscillate at the same rhythm at any given time, but usually a majority of neurons set the brain’s overall tone. What’s the purpose of them? Scientists aren’t sure (some researchers don’t think they matter at all). Why do some neurons sync up with each other? Also unclear. How is it that neurons pick up on frequencies happening from external sources like light or sound? You guessed it—it’s still a puzzle scientists are figuring out.

Either way, it seems to work therapeutically, and there’s minimal risk of side effects. In addition to more research happening at MIT, Tsai co-founded a company called Cognito that is currently administering early clinical trials for different types of gamma rhythm therapy in people with early stage Alzheimer’s. I spoke to the president of the company, who was hesitant to give me too many details about the trial for fear that if I described it in detail, those getting the placebo may realize they’re not getting the treatment. They should be wrapping up no later than January 2020.

Our brain recognizes some sounds as “objects.”

Found while reporting: A new look at how the brain processes sound could radically improve hearing aids.

Say, friend, that you and I decided to go out to a crowded bar on a Friday night with our good friend Bill Nye. If Nye and I got into an argument about which animal has the wildest capabilities and started talking over one another, you’d be able to pick out one of us to listen to. It’s a process that happens nearly instantaneously* and automatically. But it’s actually an incredibly complex process.

In this hypothetical scenario, as I scream, “The aye-aye is the only primate to have six fingers, one of which is on a ball-and-socket joint!” over Nye’s babbling about gastropods, your brain does a neat editing trick: First, it picks out both of our words as speech, and lays them out one over the other, like audio editing software lining up two tracks. Then, it dials down Nye’s voice and turns the volume up on mine, much like producers cut English translations over a foreign speaker’s voice on a radio show.

The brain can do this, in part, because it turns out it comprehends some distinct sounds the way our eyes see objects—and knows what they are when we don’t see a complete picture. For example, we know that tables have four legs and a flat top. If you saw a table from an angle where you could only see three legs, you’d still know it was a table, and your brain could fill in the rest.

Same goes with important sounds like speech: Even if you can’t hear all of the words being said—Nye is really trying to shout over me—your brain can do a pretty good job at filling in the blanks with what it expects to hear. In this case, words in English about the miracle of ball-and-socket joints.

(Cool, right? I wrote this same fact as a comment to the story on the Quartz app—check it out here.)

From a technological standpoint, this work could make better hearing aids, which aren’t good at picking out one person’s speech over another. But from a broader research standpoint, learning more about the way the brain interprets sound could make hearing one of those rare sensory windows into the brain.

*Bonus fact: The amount of time needed for your auditory cortex to tune into a single voice? 150 milliseconds.

The US Food and Drug Administration hasn’t updated the compounds that are “generally regarded as safe” in decades.

Found while reporting: What’s actually in an e-cigarette?

One of the main reasons so many people thought e-cigarettes were safe were that the ingredients are nothing new. In fact, the ingredients in legally sold e-juice are all “generally regarded as safe”—a designation created by the FDA.

There are hundreds of GRAS chemicals. The regulatory agency created the designation in 1958, when it started regulating food additives. Rather than requiring previously used food additives to go through extensive (my read: expensive) testing, the FDA decided to grandfather in these additives as “regulated” because they didn’t seem to be harming people yet, and they likely wouldn’t.

Vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol, a combination of which carry nicotine and flavorings in most e-cigarettes, are both GRAS chemicals. This means that “there is no evidence in the available information on [substance] that demonstrates, or suggests reasonable grounds to suspect, a hazard to the public when they are used at levels that are now current or might reasonably be expected in the future.”

However, the last time the FDA reviewed data these chemicals was in 1975 and 1973, respectively. And they were specifically reviewed for their use in food, and later cosmetics and drugs. They’ve never been reviewed for safety when inhaled as aerosols heated by a metal wick—which is essentially what vaping does. And taking stuff in through the lungs is way different than taking it in through other routes of the body. Robert Tarran, a biologist at the University of North Carolina, gave me water as an example: just because it’s safe—and even good!—to drink it, getting water in your lungs can be fatal.

Bonus fact: An ode to lungs

Reporting this story, read a wonderful review of all the research on e-cigarettes’ safety, and I was tickled by the introduction. It’s endearing to see such enthusiasm for our anatomy, which is something I, too, feel on a regular basis.

The lungs are a physiologic marvel, transmitting the entire cardiac output through around 2,000 km of capillaries with each heartbeat and performing gas exchange in 300,000,000 alveoli with a surface area of about 70 m. With every breath, this highly adapted and delicate organ is exposed to infectious and inflammatory environmental stimuli. As a result of innate and acquired immunity, inspired air is cleaned and humidified before it reaches the alveoli. 

Animal of the issue: Tasmanian tigers

In honor of Halloween approaching, I present to you an animal that seems to back from the dead (er—extinction).

The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, was—is?—the largest meat-eating marsupial (mammal with a pouch) living on Australia’s southern-most island. It’s been extinct since the 1930s, but there have been a lot of sightings reported around the island—especially over the past couple of years. So maybe it’s not?

This New Yorker piece does a great job of showing how those determined to find thylacine almost sound like Bigfoot enthusiasts—which would make it extra strange if the animals turn out to be alive.

Stuff I learned from others:

We can track where Lewis and Clark traveled in the US thanks to their toxic laxatives. You will never guess the most vegan-friendly city. Good luck getting pure Scotch whiskey in the US any more. A rare minority of people have guts that can ferment alcohol when they eat carbs. White bellbirds are not subtle flirts. Every piece of coal found is chemically unique. Butterflies are moths who got tired of working the night shift.

One programming note: Friend, I am going to be missing from your inbox for the month of November. I’m working on a project I’m excited to share with you in December. Sit tight, and stay curious until then!

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Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

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