Saturday, May 10, 2008

Chile Volcano At Critical Stage

Chile’s Chaitén volcano. The plume of ash is thought to generate enough static electricity to cause what is called a “dirty thunderstorm” in the same way that colliding ice particles provide the juice for regular thunderstorms.

"A Chilean official warned Friday that a seven-mile column of ash that spirals from an erupting volcano in Patagonia could collapse, devastating the area।
Luis Lara, a government geologist, said the soaring column is at a critical stage. A sudden collapse would shroud vast areas with hot gas, ash and molten rock and kill anything in its way.Authorities have evacuated thousands of people from the immediate vicinity of Chaiten volcano, 760 miles south of the capital city of Santiago. The volcano began erupting eight days ago for the first time in thousands of years.
Volcanic ash also hung over towns on the Argentine side of the border. American and United airlines canceled all flights to Buenos Aires Thursday night because of the damage that the ash can cause to planes' engines.
Experts said the volcano could erupt again at any time, and it may continue spewing ash for months or years। "

Must Florida pay for felled citrus trees?

"FORT LAUDERDALE - A jury is set to begin deliberations Monday in a case that could cost the Florida Department of Agriculture tens of millions of dollars for cutting down backyard citrus trees over the objections of homeowners.

At issue in the three-week trial is how much compensation the state should pay to 58,225 Broward County residents who lost 133,720 orange, grapefruit, tangerine, lemon, and lime trees in a controversial program aimed at preventing the spread of citrus canker disease.
The case is being closely watched because it is the first of five class-action lawsuits seeking full compensation from the state government for its canker eradication program. More than 577,000 backyard citrus trees were destroyed from 2000 to 2006 in Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Lee, and Orange counties, although the trees were never determined to have the canker disease.
Instead, state officials ordered that every citrus tree within a 1,900-foot radius of a confirmed diseased tree be cut down and removed. Residents received a $100 payment for the first tree cut, and $55 for each additional citrus tree destroyed.

The state justified the expansive eradication zone as a precaution to bring the canker outbreak under control before it spread to the 65 million trees in Florida's commercial citrus groves.
Homeowners fought the action in court, complaining that their beloved backyard citrus trees were being destroyed without any proof that the trees were, in fact, diseased.

In February, Circuit Judge Ronald Rothschild rejected the Department of Agriculture's defense that it was using the government's police powers to protect the state's food supply from a public nuisance. The judge said the state has the power to remove diseased trees, but that the Florida constitution requires the government to pay "full compensation" when healthy trees are removed as part of the program.

A jury was empaneled to decide how much compensation would be full compensation for the destroyed trees.

Agriculture Department lawyer Wesley Parsons told the jurors in closing arguments on Friday that residents should receive "zero" compensation because their trees were exposed to canker and had no value. "The trees within the 1,900-foot-radius were doomed," he said, because it was only a matter of time before they, too, would become diseased.

Mr. Parsons likened the spread of citrus canker to the spread of wildfire. Trees in the path of the flames have no value, he said. "A menace is approaching. It is not only going to debilitate the tree in the backyard, it is also going to debilitate other trees in the neighborhood," he told the jurors.
Nancy LaVista, a West Palm Beach lawyer for the residents, told the jury that the state had no evidence that the destroyed trees were infected. "If they truly believed those trees were infected a new arc would be drawn at 1,900 feet," she said. "

Less About 'Sick,' More About 'Normal'

"If you had died 50 years ago, your body would have stood a pretty good chance of serving science. In the 1960s, autopsy rates at US hospitals exceeded 50 percent. Pathologists weren't necessarily looking for what killed people — they were taking advantage of the fact that a body was available and ready for inspection. There was still much to learn about normal human biology, the thinking went, so every corpse was an educational opportunity.

These days, autopsy rates have fallen below 10 percent, a decline that's symptomatic of a larger deficiency. Medicine has become all about finding a problem — a tumor, a heart attack, a failing kidney — and deploying advanced treatment technologies. In the process, we seem to have given up on measuring and tracking what constitutes normal. That's an alarming — and potentially dangerous — trend.

What's normal matters because we're entering a new era of health care, one in which we look not for causes of illness but for risks. It's called predictive medicine, and its primary tool is the screening test. A good screening test should provide a range of results, distinguishing between a condition within normal parameters — which doesn't require intervention — and an anomaly, which demands it. That's how most blood tests work, for instance. But for all sorts of conditions, there's often no definition of normal. In heart disease, for example, CT screening tests can spot abnormalities in arterial plaque — but no research exists on whether that information is actually predictive of heart disease or stroke. "We need to know normal variation," says Pat Brown, a professor of biochemistry at Stanford University School of Medicine. "It's really underappreciated as a part of science." In too many areas, Brown argues, we're too quick to jump at any blip without understanding whether it's a true red alert or just normal background noise.

Consider prostate cancer. Right now, about two-thirds of men diagnosed with the disease get treated with surgery or radiation (both of which carry a significant risk of impotence or incontinence). But in February, researchers at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey found that 80 percent of men over age 66 with detectable prostate cancer who do nothing (so-called watchful waiting) will likely die of something else. In other words, most of those who get treatment — and could be impotent as a result — should have gone without it. "We're way overtreating the disease," says Peter Nelson, an oncologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. "Really, you only want to know about the ones that are potentially fatal."

Ironically, this problem is brought on by technology. Imaging and scanning tools are now so good at peering inside our bodies, they've surpassed our capacity to interpret the results. Many findings are what doctors call "incidentalomas," smudges that look like cancer but turn out — often after surgery — to be benign. Though new detection technologies like proteomics have made great progress in associating particular biomarkers with certain cancers or diseases, we still don't know how often those same markers turn up in nondisease situations.

It seems like it would be easy just to step back and survey the broad picture. But research costs money, and studying what's normal is generally considered trivial, dismissed as mere butterfly collecting. At the National Institutes for Health, for instance, all grants are given a "priority score," an indication of a project's novelty, originality, and "scientific merit." Normal need not apply.

But in these data-rich days, studying what's normal could be a project of startling originality and merit. With petabytes of storage and ample processing power at hand, there's an opportunity to create a sort of Normal Human Project — a macro understanding of human biology on a micro scale. Or, as Stanford's Brown describes it, a "comprehensive, quantitative molecular and cellular characterization of the normal human.'" That may sound daunting, but complementary projects are already under way. Seattle's Allen Institute for Brain Science, having completed a 3-D model of the mouse brain in 2006, is now aiming to model the human brain in its normal state. Even postmortem examinations are coming back into vogue, via high-volume autopsy centers, which can add their results to resources like Johns Hopkins' online autopsy database.

The annals of medicine are full of tidy explanations of how the body works, from Dr. Atkins all the way back to Hippocrates. Inevitably, though, someone comes along and shows that there's a little more to it. It would be wise, as Brown suggests, "to accept the fact that we don't know a tremendous amount about things we think we know. We could learn some humility." That, however, may be asking too much of science.
Deputy editor Thomas Goetz ( wrote about personal genomics in issue 15.12."

Florida lawmakers end yearly session

"Published: May 3, 2008 at 5:55 PMTALLAHASSEE, Fla., May 3 (UPI) --

Florida legislators closed their yearly session by passing a penny-pinching budget and making health insurance plans for autistic children, officials said.Despite the tight budget, lawmakers also managed to make health insurance plans for working citizens living in poverty and small businesses, The Miami Herald reported.''Some great things happened today. Historic things happened today,'' Gov. Charlie Crist said of the Friday session.With an all-time high $4 billion in budget cutbacks and a stalling economy looming this year, lawmakers reportedly had to leave behind some high-priority proposals, including a sales-tax holiday and a central Florida rail line.It is reported that public education saw the most severe cutbacks -- $2.3 billion -- while increased funds were given to private schools in the form of vouchers. ''There are corpses strewn about the Capitol. This year there is no money to grease the wheels," Fort Lauderdale Rep. Jack Seiler said."

Gas costs have been manipulated

Clinton: Gas costs have been manipulated

"Published: May 4, 2008 at 5:50 PMINDIANAPOLIS, May 4 (UPI) --

U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Sunday blamed market manipulation as the likely cause of record high gas prices in the United States.Appearing on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," the Democratic presidential contender said if she is elected in November, she will immediately order an investigation into the industry."We know that there's market manipulation going on. So I would launch an investigation if I were president right now by the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission," Clinton said.The New York senator said any attempts to lower gas prices should require the participation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries."I would begin to go directly at OPEC," she said. "I think it's been 25 years where we've, you know, largely just been at the mercy of the OPEC countries."Clinton said in addition to taking on OPEC members, she would confront oil companies about the rising cost of gasoline."You see, I really believe we've got to start right now demonstrating a willingness to take on these oil companies," she said in response to a "This Week" audience question."


Saturday, May 03, 2008

Economic cloud over sunny Florida

"By Tom Brown

MIAMI (Reuters) - Economic data continues to suggest that fears of a new "Great Depression" in the United States are overblown. But in places like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, where the housing bust has bitten hard and prices are rising fast, the specter of economic stagnation twinned with inflation looms all too real.

"Since the 1970s we haven't really seen this simultaneous threat of an economic slowdown, and recession, side by side with the threat of inflation," said Sean Snaith, an economics professor at the University of Central Florida.

Nationally, inflation was flat in February, according to the U.S. Labor Department's consumer price index, the most widely used gauge.

But in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, prices were up by 5.3 percent that month, according to the department's southeastern office, in Atlanta, the highest of any metropolitan area in the country.
The department gives national figures for March on Wednesday. The regional figures are released every two months, with the next ones out in May.

For many in Florida, a state that people are leaving in droves because of high property tax and home insurance rates, the biggest and harshest rise has been in energy costs, up 18 percent in the 12 months to the end of February.

And they could continue surging amid Energy Department warnings that gasoline prices could soon hit $4 a gallon in some areas.

"Everything is high. Everything is going up," said Cookie Elias, a Miami-based mother of three as she packed her young children into a minivan after shopping at a local Costco discount retailer in Miami."

Japanese Pay Less for More Health Care

Japan has the longest life span on the planet.

"Japan produces cars, color TVs and computers, but it also produces the world's healthiest people. It has the longest healthy life expectancy on Earth and spends half as much on health care as the United States.

That long life expectancy is partly due to diet and lifestyle, but the country's universal health care system plays a key role, too.

Everyone in Japan is required to get a health insurance policy, either at work or through a community-based insurer. The government picks up the tab for those who are too poor.
It's a model of social insurance that is used in many wealthy countries. But it's definitely not "socialized medicine." Eighty percent of Japan's hospitals are privately owned — more than in the United States — and almost every doctor's office is a private business.

Health Care for Anyone at Anytime
Dr. Kono Hitoshi is a typical doctor. He runs a private, 19-bed hospital in the Tokyo neighborhood of Soshigaya.

"The best thing about the Japanese medical system is that all citizens are covered," Kono says. "Anyone, anywhere, anytime — and it's cheap."
Patients don't have to make appointments at his hospital, either.
The Japanese go to the doctor about three times as often as Americans. Because there are no gatekeepers, they can see any specialist they want.

Keeping Costs Low
Japanese patients also stay in the hospital much longer than Americans, on average. They love technology such as magnetic resonance imaging; they have nearly twice as many scans per capita as Americans do. A neck scan can cost $1,200 in the United States.
Professor Ikegami Naoki, Japan's top health economist, explains how Japan keeps MRIs affordable.

"Well, in 2002, the government says that the MRIs, we are paying too much. So in order to be within the total budget, we will cut them by 35 percent," Ikegami says.
This is how Japan keeps cost so low. The Japanese Health Ministry tightly controls the price of health care down to the smallest detail. Every two years, the health care industry and the health ministry negotiate a fixed price for every procedure and every drug.
That helps keep premiums to around $280 a month for the average Japanese family, a lot less than Americans pay. And Japan's employers pick up at least half of that. If you lose your job, you keep your health insurance.

An Accommodating Insurance System
Japanese insurers are a lot more accommodating than their American counterparts. For one thing, they can't deny a claim. And they have to cover everybody.
Even an applicant with heart disease can't be turned down, says Ikegami, the professor. "That is forbidden."

Nor do health care plans covering basic health care for workers and their families make a profit.
"Anything left over is carried over to the next year," Ikegami says. If the carryover was big, "then the premium rate would go down." "

Med records subject to security breach

"CHICAGO, April 16 (UPI) -- Indiana-based Wellpoint Inc. says a security breach may have allowed Internet access to the personal medical information of 130,000 customers.The health insurance giant says "for a period of time" the Social Security numbers, pharmacy records and other personal health data of customers in several states, including Illinois, "were not properly secured," The Chicago Tribune reported Wednesday.The problem involved two computer servers maintained by a third-party vendor that Wellpoint declined to name, the Tribune said.Wellpoint has been notifying customers of the problem by letter and offering them one year of free credit-monitoring services.Company spokeswoman Cheryl Leamon says outside consultants have already been hired to reduce the risk of future incidents."We have not received any reports of identify theft or credit fraud," Leamon said. "We take the security of our members' personal health information very seriously.""

Internet Med Records: Convenience at a Cost?

"There are Web sites that allow you to keep information about your medical treatment online, where you and your doctor can access it easily. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday asks if electronic medical records are the next big thing in health care. The answer? When it comes to keeping these records yourself, it depends.

Debbie Witchey is like many Americans: She wants to have all her medical records accessible online. Dozens of Internet sites offer the service, some free, some not.
Witchey knows about personal health records. She's senior vice president of government affairs for the Healthcare Leadership Council, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group for the health care industry. It's pushing something different: electronic health records, which doctors and hospitals keep on computers so they're quickly available to any doctor at any hospital. The council doesn't have a position on personal health records, which individuals maintain.

A Personal Experiment
But Witchey, 44, was curious about the benefits of personal health records. She checked out promotional materials from one of the biggest sites, Revolution Health. "I was just about to switch doctors, and one of the things they talked about was how great it was to be able to keep all your records in one place," Witchey says. "I was having to go through the process of getting all my records and moving them around, and I thought, 'Well, this would be a good opportunity to give it a try.' So I signed up."

By filling out a few forms, she was able to get her old records scanned and uploaded onto the site, where she could print them out and bring them to her new doctor.
The doctor reviewed the records and put them into Witchey's file.
Then, during the physical exam, the doctor noticed Witchey's blood pressure was high and recommended medication. Witchey wanted to try diet first. The doctor said OK, so long as Witchey monitored herself closely, which she realized she could do easily on the Web.
"I tracked my weight and my blood pressure on the Revolution Health site, and then I printed it out and took it to her every month," Witchey says.

She weighed herself weekly and took her blood pressure every day, entering the information in a minute or two. The fact that she was paying daily attention helped her a lot, she says. She lost 50 pounds and dropped her blood pressure from 135/105 to 107/71.

A Time-Consuming Effort
For now, Witchey has to input everything she wants on the site — prescriptions, vaccinations, details of hospitalizations — because her doctor isn't connected to the system.
That's one of the drawbacks of personal health records, says medical records expert Joy Pritts of Georgetown University.
"The problem now is getting information from your family physician, for example," Pritts says. Such doctors typically have "small practices, and most of them don't have their health information in electronic form."
So they can't send it to a Web site.
That could change as big companies get involved. Right now, Microsoft and Google are in various stages of developing online medical records systems. Some major employers, including Intel and Wal-Mart, are piloting programs as well. Some health insurers already let you have access to your records, which includes some information from your doctors.
At the moment, however, creating and maintaining a full health record may be a job for the compulsive, Witchey says.

"When I first sat down to sign up and get started, I had this vision that I was going to put all my information in here in one sitting, and I'd be all set and ready to go," she says. "And it quickly became clear to me, there's a lot more time to invest in it than I had originally thought about."
She hasn't put in her records from before 2003, for example. "

Into the Brain of a Liar

"We all lie — once a day or so, according to most studies. But usually we tell little lies, like "your new haircut looks great!" And most of us can control when we lie or what we lie about. But some people lie repeatedly and compulsively, about things both big and small.

In 2005, a study published in The British Journal of Psychiatry provided the first evidence of structural differences in the brains of people with a history of persistent lying. The study was led by Yaling Yang, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Southern California, and Adrian Raine, an expert on antisocial disorders who is now at University of Pennsylvania.
They expected to see some kind of deficit in the brains of these liars, Yang says. But surprisingly, the liars in their study actually had a surplus — specifically, they had more connections in the part of their brains responsible for complex thinking.

Finding Liars
The label "pathological liar" gets used in a variety of ways, and there's no standard psychological definition or test to measure if someone is a pathological liar. So Yang and her team chose to focus their study on people who have a history of repeated lying and seem not to be able to control their lying (hereafter called simply, "liars"). The researchers began by gathering volunteers from temporary employment agencies in the Los Angeles area. The idea was that liars would be over-represented at these agencies; a history of repeated lying would likely make it hard to keep a steady job.

Then they ran 108 volunteers through extensive interviews and a battery of tests that measure patterns of deception. In the end, the team found 12 people who showed strong evidence of repeated and compulsive lying. For control groups, they identified 16 people who had antisocial tendencies but no history of lying and 21 people with no history of either lying or antisocial behavior.

Into the Scanner
Yang and her colleagues put all 49 people, both the liars and the non-liars, into a magnetic resonance imaging scanner and took pictures of their prefrontal cortex. They chose to focus on this area of the brain because previous studies had shown that the prefrontal cortex plays a role in both lying and in antisocial behaviors.

If you could look into this part of the brain, which sits right behind your forehead, you would see two kinds of matter: gray and white. Gray matter is the groups of brain cells that process information. Most neuroscience studies focus on gray matter. But nearly half the brain is composed of connective tissues that carry electrical signals from one group of neurons to another. This is white matter. Roughly, gray matter is where the processing happens, and white matter connects different parts of the brain, helping us to bring different ideas together.
The liars in Yang's study had on average 22 percent to 26 percent more white matter in their prefrontal cortex than both the normal and antisocial controls.

More Connections
Yang speculates that the increase in white matter means that people who lie repeatedly and compulsively are better at making connections between thoughts that aren't connected in reality — like, say, "me" and "fighter pilot." Consequently, while some of us struggle to come up with reasons why we were late for work, or can't go out with someone we don't really like, Yang's liars impulsively serve up a heaping helping of excuses and stories, and fast.
"By having more connections," Yang says, "you can jump from one idea to another and you can come up with more random stories and ideas."

Admittedly, this study is just a first step. It doesn't show that more white matter in the prefrontal cortex accounts for all lying or that it's the only part of the brain involved. And the study does not establish whether the brain differences lead to lying or whether repeated lying somehow "exercises" connections in the brain. While the study was carefully designed to exclude differences that could be due to age, ethnicity, IQ, brain injury or substance abuse, the small sample size means the results need to be replicated. More research is needed to define what behaviors count as pathological lying and to establish the mechanism behind those behaviors. "