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News Bytes of the Week—Star Trek Star Gets Own Asteroid

Smart milk, Real crocodile tears, Bush says "no" to kids, Toy blocks build language skills, and more…

A star becomes an asteroid
Nothing like getting your own asteroid. Just ask former Star Trek star George Takei. The International Astronomical Union's Committee on Small Body Nomenclature this week approved renaming a celestial rock between Mars and Jupiter 7307 Takei in honor of the actor best known for his role as Captain Kirk'ssteadfast helmsman Hiakru Sulu in the original Star Trek TV series and movies. The asteroid, formerly dubbed 1994 GT9, was discovered by two Japanese astronomers 13 years ago. Takei joins Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (4659 Roddenberry) and Nichelle Nichols (68410 Nichols), who played Lt. Uhura in the original series, in having a space rock named after him. "I am now a heavenly body," Takei, 71, told the Associated Press with a chuckle, noting that when he heard the news he was "blown away. It came out of the clear, blue sky, just like an asteroid." (AP)

Bush nixes health insurance for kids
President Bush this week infuriated child advocates and many members of his own political base by vetoing legislation designed to provide health insurance coverage for millions of U.S. children. Bush told a Pennsylvania business group that he rejected the initiative, because the Democratic-controlled Congress was trying to "federalize health care." Some nine million of the nation's children currently do not have health insurance. The bill was aimed at bumping up enrollment from 6.6 million to around 10 million in a popular federal health care program for children of families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid yet cannot afford hefty private insurance fees. The measure would have pumped about $7 billion more annually over five years into the program, which currently receives about $5 billion annually. This was Bush's fourth veto, three of which have concerned health; two were of measures that would have expanded federal embryonic stem cell research. (New York Times)

Is mom's milk the smart choice?
You bet, say researchers who found that preemies who drank breast milk while still in intensive care units thrived better than their formula-fed brethren—and were less likely to be rehospitalized after being discharged. Scientists report in the journal Pediatrics that they followed 800 extremely low weight babies and found that after 30 months those fed mom's milk scored an average of 90 on the mental development index, a test that measures overall intelligence, compared with an average 76 for the other infants. As for steering clear of the hospital, researchers speculate that breast milk boosts the immune system, making it easier for junior to ward off infections. (Pediatrics)

The (toy) building blocks of language
Eager to give your tiny tot a leg up on language skills? Might consider investing in some toy blocks. Researchers from Seattle Children's Hospital Research Institute report in Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine that tykes who played with building blocks during a study scored 15 percent higher on a language assessment test than their non-block-playing compeers. So much for being a blockhead! (APAM)

Promising new stroke therapy
New research shows that patients treated with the antibiotic minocycline within 24 hours of suffering a stroke were less likely to suffer debilitating damage. Researchers at Tel Aviv University report in Neurology that they gave 150 stroke victims either minocycline or a placebo; three months later, those who received the antibiotic scored four times better on the National Institutes of Health stroke scale measuring vision, movement and speaking ability. Physicians are encouraged because minocycline can work up to a day after symptoms appear, whereas most current treatments only help if administered within the first few hours of an attack, which may take time to recognize. (Neurology)

Oh my aching back!
Suffer from back pain? Not surprising considering it's one of the top adult health complaints (as many as one in four Americans report experiencing lower back pain at least once a day). Wonder what to do about it? So do many doctors, which is why the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society this week released guidelines on how to diagnose and treat it. Numero uno rule, they say: physicians should rely less on tests such as CAT scans, MRIs or x-rays for patients grumping about nonspecific back pain and more on various medications (but to carefully weigh the risks and benefits of each one) and employ nondrug therapies such as acupuncture and massage. The groups recommend limiting imaging tests to patients with back pain that is severe and accompanied by neurological or spinal symptoms or if an underlying culprit such as cancer is suspected. (summary for patients)

Best Rx for the teenage blues
A new study says that a combo of drugs and counseling is the most effective treatment for teen depression. Over 400 depressed kids were treated for 12 weeks with either the antidepressant Prozac, cognitive behavior therapy or a mix of both. Some 73 percent of those receiving combination therapy responded favorably, compared with only 62 percent of those on Prozac and 48 percent undergoing counseling. Caution: teens treated only with Prozac were found to be twice as likely to experience suicidal thoughts or behaviors as those who received cognitive behavior therapy, researchers report in Archives of General Psychology. (AGP)

Flu shot reduces death, hospitalization of seniors
There has recently been a flurry of debate over whether flu vaccines really protect seniors. Researchers at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center are the latest to weigh in, reporting in The New England Journal of Medicine that a survey of results from the past several flu seasons shows that seniors who received the vaccine had a 48 percent reduced risk of death and a 27 percent reduced risk of being hospitalized from the flu or pneumonia. (NEJM)

Virtual versus traditional colonoscopy
A major new study shows that virtual colonoscopy works just as well as traditional scope exams in scouting for potentially cancerous growths. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin Medical School compared the results of 3,120 patients scanned virtually and 3,163 screened the traditional way and report inThe New England Journal of Medicine that the tests detected nearly the same number of suspicious polyps—123 in the virtual crowd and 121 in the conventional group. Virtual colonography uses a CT scanner to take a series of x-rays of the colon and a computer to create a 3-D view. A small tube is inserted in the rectum to inflate the colon so that it can be viewed more easily. Conventional colonoscopy, the gold standard for colorectal cancer screening, offers both diagnostic and therapeutic options, because a polyp can be removed immediately if discovered during the procedure. If a lesion is found during a virtual exam, the patient must then undergo a traditional colonoscopy to extract it. Virtual colonoscopy is about a third the cost of the conventional variety, but many insurance companies consider it to be experimental and won't cover a portion of the tab. That could change, though, if a large federally funded study now underway confirms these results. Guidelines from the American Gastroenterological Association call for everyone 50 years of age and older (younger in high-risk groups) to have a colonoscopy. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 112,340 new cases of colon cancer and some 41,420 cases of rectal cancer will be diagnosed, and more than 52,000 Americans will die this year from the disease, which is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths even though it can be successfully treated if caught early. (NEJM)

Stent safety: Just say yes to drugs
Canadian physicians report in The New England Journal of Medicine that patients who had drug-coated stents surgically implanted to pry open clogged arteries were less likely than those who received bare metal ones to have the pathways choke off again and require another procedure to reopen them. The death rate over three years in patients with drug-coated stents was 5.5 percent compared with 7.8 percent for patients who received noncoated devices; the risk of heart attack after two years was about the same in both groups. The study was conducted on 3,750 pairs of patients. (NEJM)

Grape expectations: Heart bennies for teetotalers
Many studies have shown that drinking red wine in moderation may be heart-healthy. But what about those imbibers of nonalcoholic beverages among us? Good news, oh teetotalers. New research presented at the recent Wine Health 2007 confab in Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux, shows that Concord grape juice offers the same benefits as red wine—and then some. Researcher Valerie Schini-Kerth and colleagues at the University Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France, reported that grape juice like red wine triggers production of nitric oxide (in endothelial cells), which maintains healthy, flexible blood vessels and helps keep a lid on blood pressure. They say the juice sets off the same chemical reactions in arteries as does red wine—only the effects last up to six hours, far longer than reported in wine drinkers. Schini-Kerth said the study demonstrates what's long been suspected: it's the grapes—and not the alcohol—behind the healthy vibes. (press release)

Real crocodile tears
Could it be? Do crocodiles really shed a tear when chowing down? Yes they do, according to University of Florida zoologist Kent Vliet Vliet reports in the journal BioScience that he observed and videotaped four captive caimans and three alligators, close crocodile relatives, tearing up as they gobbled their dinner at Florida's St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park. He said that he and study co-author D. Malcolm Shaner, a neurology consultant at Kaiser Permanente, West Los Angeles, decided to "take a closer look'' after Shaner's curiosity was aroused while exploring the cause of a relatively rare syndrome associated with human facial palsy that causes sufferers to cry while eating. There are many literary references to crocs feeding and crying—and myth has it that they shed fake tears while feasting on human victims. Needless to say, the researchers observed the animals chomping on dog-biscuit–like fare—not humans—at the zoo. Their findings: the animals did indeed tear up as they ate up. The source of the tears remains a mystery, but Vliet speculated that air forced through their sinuses may mix with tears in the crocodiles lachrymal (tear) glands and empty into their eyes. One thing's for certain though, he said: "Faux grief is not a factor. In my experience, when crocodiles take something into their mouth, they mean it." (press release)

Would Americans pay to stop global warming?
A new survey shows that nearly three quarters of Americans polled would be willing to fork over more in taxes and other costs to support local government initiatives to stem global warming. According to the survey conducted by GfK Public Affairs and Media along with the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, 74 percent of Americans would back local regs requiring all newly constructed homes to be more energy efficient, even if they upped the initial price tag of the houses by $7,500. Among other findings: 72 percent of respondents said they'd support rules to encourage homeowners to install electricity-generating solar panels on existing homes because of potential energy and utility bill savings, even if it meant coughing up an extra $5 per month in increased property taxes; 71 percent said they'd be willing to pony up $5 a month more in property taxes to encourage homeowners to replace old furnaces, water heaters, air conditioners, light bulbs and insulation; 69 percent said they'd be willing to plunk down $8.50 more a month for local regulations requiring electric utilities to produce at least 20 percent of their electricity from wind, solar and other renewable energy sources; and, 53 percent would back proposals to add city or local fees to electricity bills to encourage people to use less juice. But they were only willing to go so far: Some 64 percent said "no" to a 10-cent fee per gallon of gas designed to encourage people to use less fuel. (Yale)

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