Tag Archives: medicine

The ethics of Alzheimer’s

Though the authors of the BSR blog don’t comment on the topic frequently, there’s an undercurrent of ethical debate to the vast majority of scientific issues. Sometimes the ethical debate is obvious, as in these recent pieces on Proposition 37. In other cases, it’s more subtle: all research needs to justify the money spent on it—money that could otherwise go to other efforts at improving the human condition. In the particular case of Alzheimer’s, the ethics of diagnosis have increasingly become critical. I want to pause for a moment from science, and think about a few of the shifting considerations of this case brings.

Alzheimer’s disease causes the slow degradation of the mental faculties, leading to dementia and death. This decline places an enormous burden on caregivers, often family members, and makes AD the third most economically expensive disease in the developed world. Because onset of the disease typically begins after age 65, it has been an increasing concern as the human lifespan lengthens. Though some are in trials, there are no known treatments that cure or even simply slow the progress of Alzheimer’s.

Rats learn to walk again after severe spinal cord injury

Do you ever look at the world around you and think, “How did we get here?” How did we come to live in a world with so much amazing technology? I frequently marvel at the amount of time and engineering that goes into the devices and processes we use every day. And then sometimes, we get a glimpse into the development of what is sure to be the technology of the future. The readers of this week’s issue of Science received just such a preview, in the paper humbly titled, “Restoring Voluntary Control of Locomotion after Paralyzing Spinal Cord Injury” (you can read the paper here; subscription required).

The team of Swiss researchers made two cuts in the spinal cords of adult female rats—not enough to completely sever the cord, but enough to cut off major pathways for signaling between the brain and the hind legs. Then they treated the rats using drug injections and electrical stimulation of the injured segments. To test whether or not the rats regained any motor function, they strapped them into harnesses that allow a full range of motion and enticed to move with food. Normally, a hungry rat’s brain would send signals telling her legs to move, but since the nerves carrying those signals were cut, she shouldn’t have been able to move at all.

Problematic prions and the history of Mad Cow Disease

Well, folks, it has happened again. A dairy cow from California was recently diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as “mad cow disease.” The cow was already at a rendering plant when the diagnosis was made and, apparently, was never headed toward our food supply. The last confirmed BSE infection in US beef was in 2006, and in total, only four cows have ever tested positive in our country’s entire beef industry. Meanwhile, in just a handful of decades, over a hundred people in the UK have gone “mad” and ultimately died from consuming BSE-tainted beef. In addition, over four million head of cattle have been culled in the UK in an effort to eradicate the problem.

The history of spongiform encephalopathy, however, begins long before the relatively recent BSE crisis — and its victims have included everything from human cannibals to farmed mink. Yet, rarely does science news cover spongiform encephalopathy beyond the context of the grilled burger patty. Burgers are indeed delicious (I prefer mine with BBQ sauce and cheddar cheese), but trust me, the history of spongiform encephalopathy as a disease is way more interesting than this one dairy cow might lead you to believe.

Circa 1920, two German doctors, Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt and Alfons Maria Jakob, each individually identified the symptoms of spongiform encephalopathy in humans. Hence, the pathology was named Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in their honor. The patients that the doctors studied, however, did not develop their diseases as a result of eating tainted beef. Rather, these patients “spontaneously” developed the condition as the result of a rare (and natural!) genetic anomale.