Issue 76

Walking back the brain's information highway, male models, and failing levees

July 13, 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.

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Reversing information through the senses.

Based on the reporting I did for this story: Scientists may have found a better way to spot early signs of dementia: our eyes.

What that fascinates me about dementia research is that it’s been so hard for scientists to crack because the brain itself is so resilient. It does all this incredible work—like reading and listening and smelling and feeling—routinely and effortlessly. And it can handle so much damage, without giving us any indication that we should be worried.

By the time we do start to notice problems with our thinking and remembering, it usually means the brain has been suffering for some time, and finally hit its limits. It also means that it’s often too late for us to intervene on its behalf.

One way of possibly spotting damage sooner could be through our widows to the outside world.

Our senses collect data on the outside world for us, but our brains are the ones that have to make sense of that constant information dump.

This means that each and every one of us is living a slightly different reality—based on the world brains create for us, Alyssa Brewer, a neurologist and neurosurgeon at the University of California, Irvine, told me a couple months ago. It’s a trippy thought.

More importantly, idea that has led researchers to think that if our senses are the highways that transport information to our brains, perhaps they can reversed. Maybe by looking at our senses, we can get a picture of what is going on in the brain—which is otherwise isolated and elusive in the ivory tower that is our skulls.

If we can rule out that changes to our senses are not related to the hardware (organs like our eyes and nose), but rather the software (our brains), researchers can get an idea of what kind of bugs are causing trouble before we start to see things like actual cognitive decline.

It’s a relatively new line of thought. Blood tests and scans have been the more mainstream approaches to earlier dementia detection—but so far they haven’t been able to deliver. At this point in dementia research, it seems to me like scientists have realized that brain deterioration is so varied and so complex we can’t just try one solution or detection method—we’ve gotta throw every idea we can at it. Nothing’s stuck so far, so what’s the harm in trying to think outside the box?

Which leads me to another exciting development: Next week I’ll be at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles. I’m going to be doing a lot of reporting out there, and I’ll be sending a special issue of Scrap Facts with the best stuff I find on the ground.

Women are underrepresented in clinical research, but that’s got nothing on the underrepresentation in animal models.

Found while reporting: 25 years of women being underrepresented in medical research, in charts.

Medical research tends to under-include women. This is not a new fact.

In clinical research, there are a number of reasons why this would still be the case—a lot of them having to do with social factors, like being the primary caregiver for family and therefore unable to make multiple medical appointments, rather than physiological ones.

But before any research can reach the clinical phase, a lot of work has to be done in the lab, either on cell (in vitro) or animal (in vivo) models. The thinking here is that you’d have to make sure that a potential new drug could be safe in animals before trying it out on people.

However, researchers tend to use more male animals and cell models than female ones. This issue is something Melina Kibbe, a vascular surgeon at the University of North Carolina, has studied for years. In 2014, she and her colleagues found that 80% of papers involving animal models from 2011 to 2012 used only male models—of those that even specified the sex of the animals they were working on. Only 78% of papers actually did.

In cell models, 76% of the papers didn’t include anything about the sex of the cells. Of those that did, 71% of them used only male cells.

By not including all kinds of genetic information in research, scientists aren’t doing research that benefits everyone. For some women, this has had some dangerous consequences—like taking too high doses of medication, or having life-threatening heart conditions being misdiagnosed.

When I asked Kibbe about why this persists, she said that some scientists are worried that including both sexes in model research would introduce too many variables. To which I said, “Isn’t that kind of the point?” We shared a sad laugh.

That kind of male model isn’t the problem.

Image description: a shot from the movie “Zoolander” where Ben Stiller gives the look “Blue Steel.”

DC’s flood protection system is sub par.

Found while reporting: Climate change could intensify DC floods, but engineering can help.

It’s the middle of the summer, which means its thunderstorm season in the District.

Flooding is pretty common in DC when we’ve got heavy rain. Huge portions of the city are pavement, which don’t absorb any water. Runoff goes directly into storm drains, which quickly fill up and spill their contents into the surrounding Potomac and Anacostia rivers. It’s gross.

What I didn’t realize about my home is that technically, it has a levee system along the National Mall that was built in the 1930s after some serious floods destroyed bridges and trashed the National Mall itself. There were at least some engineers who realized that building a city near swollen riverbanks was going to be a potential problem.

But the issue is, more than 10 years ago the Army Corps of Engineers gave this system a failing grade. The National Park Service has a makeshift system in place to try to protect important buildings like the National Building and the Internal Revenue Service building, but it’s hardly secure enough to be considered totally safe from flood zones.

That said, flooding is hardly a problem unique to DC. As of this morning, it appears that Louisiana’s levees are holding up against tropical storm Barry—but storm flooding a constant concern for some of its cities, which are below sea level.

Stuff I learned from others:

It’s even harder to find platonic friends to rent than it is to find a date. Even doctors and scientists have hoped that they could find some medicinal use for wine. The oil industry’s lone female CEO uses more inclusive language than her male peers. Cockatoos have sick dance moves. The first data privacy law in the US was written by a judge embarrassed by his love of Hitchcock films and British costume dramas. Facebook and the US Army funded an AI that can beat you at poker, for totally normal reasons, I’m sure.

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

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Image description: a sketched headshot of me.

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