Healthcare, medicine & pharmaceuticals

Is multi-tasking bad for the brain?

According to Clifford Nass, a Professor at Stanford University, less might be more when it comes to digital doing. One study looking at the habits of heavy media multi-taskers found people who multi-task the most are frequently the worst at it. Moreover, heavy multi-tasking may be harming our thinking ability, especially deep thinking and analysis.

This applies to people who deal with multiple streams of unrelated information. For example, people who use multiple windows on computers, many applications on smart phones, or who use more than one screen at once at home or in the office.

Heavy multi-taskers lose the ability to ignore irrelevant data. In other words, they are suckers for distraction and become bored when they are not constantly stimulated with new things. You can see this for yourself with anyone aged under 25, but the real problem is that other generations are having multi-tasking forced upon them.

This is not the same as saying that nobody can multi-task at all. The study is suggesting that heavy multi-taskers are potentially damaging their higher-level brain functions and this could become a multi-generational problem in the years ahead. The co-authors of the study, Eyal Ophir and Anthony Wagner, also say that heavy multi-taskers are among the slowest at switching from one task to another, which is quite the opposite to what you might expect.

Watch out soon for more stories about the multi-tasking myth, internet addiction, the erosion of empathy and the perils of reading important information online.

Ref: Various including: National Public Radio (US), 28 August 2009, Multi-tasking may not mean higher productivity’, P. Raeburn.
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Search terms: multi-tasking, brain function, irrelevance, screens

Future risks - Bisphenol A

You might not have heard of it, but Bisphenol A (BPA) is one of the most widely used chemicals in the world. Since the 1950s it has been used to strengthen plastic and is embedded in almost everything we use, including mobile phones, computer keyboards, bottled water, and nail polish. BPA is also widely used in food packaging, including tins, kitchen surfaces and baby bottles. The trouble is it might be killing us.

BPA is an endocrine disruptor, which means it affects genetic quality, and tests have shown humans can pick up the chemical. 90% of people tested had traces of BPA in their bodies and BPA has been linked to everything from breast cancer (up by 80% in the UK since the 1970s) and heart disease to birth defects.

Could BPA cause a major public health scare? It already has in some countries. Japan reduced levels of BPA in tins years ago and has acted to remove it from packaging used by children. The US and Canada have followed suit. The problem, of course, is that the research is ambiguous. Moreover, the chemical could have what scientists call a “long latency period”, so it could take 30, 40 or even 50 years to do its damage.

What’s next? Keep an eye on BPA. As Dr Greene, a professor of Paediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine points out: “For all of the illnesses that are rapidly increasing in the last couple of decades - and that includes, autism, ADHT, allergies of various kind, cancer, Type II diabetes and high blood pressure - it’s not our genetics that have changed. It’s our environmental exposure, it’s what we eat, it’s how we move… and it’s the chemicals in our lives.”

Ref: The Independent (UK) 31 March 2010, ‘Living dangerously’,
M. Hickman.
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Search terms: Bisphenol A (BPA), latency, environment, packaging, defects, breast cancer

Patient public involvement

I’m trying to keep a straight face, but the National Institute for Health and Clinical Expertise (NICE) is exploring whether the medical profession should use ‘Patient important outcome measures’. It’s a bit like stepping up to reach out for significant collaborative outcomes. Seriously though, medicine has for too long worried about the effects of treatment without asking the people being treated.

For example, research into osteoarthritis of the knee has long focused on medical trials of steroids and anti-inflammatory treatments. However, when asked, patients suffering from the condition said they really wanted surgical studies and information about coping mechanisms.

There is a meta-study looking at pain relief during labour. Of nine studies, only two had thought to ask women about their experiences during labour. The NHS in the UK has recently published a report highlighting some of the benefits of marrying medical expertise with patient experience. Given the connecting powers of the internet this trend looks certain to continue. It also sounds rather sensible.

Ref: Prospect (UK) July 2010, ‘Giving people what they want’, S. Petit-Zeman.
Source credibility: ****
Search terms: patient experience, medical treatment, onsteoarthritis, National Institute for Health and Clinical Expertise (NICE)

A new age of predictive biomarkers?

The most difficult diseases to cure are the ones that take longest to develop. Complex illnesses have complex causes, the result of years of complicated molecular interactions deep inside our bodies. However, there’s a silver lining deep inside this cloud, because complex diseases leave trace evidence. In other words, diseases leave discernable trails as changes in proteins, nucleic acids and metabolites.

For the last couple of decades, scientists have been using biomarkers to look for such evidence. The way this works is simple. Collect blood samples from a group of healthy people and use biomarker levels as baseline readings. Then collect samples from people with a known condition and compare the differences. The data collected can then be used as a test to diagnose the same condition in other people.

In theory all one needs is regular testing and diseases can be picked up early before they do any real damage. The value is in the monitoring. Not everyone is convinced about the usefulness of such tests. A 2009 study of six cardiovascular biomarkers found they were only slightly better at predicting conditions than ordinary risk factor tests (eg, whether a subject smokes or not). One company involved in the biomarker business is the Biophysical Corporation, part of another company called Rules-Based Medicine.

Ref: Scientific American (US), December 2009, ‘Know if disease grows inside you’, by M. Wenner.
Source credibility: *****
Search terms: biomarkers, Rules-Based Medicine, diagnosis, trace evidence, baseline readings

Future vision

One consequence of societal ageing is there will be more people developing vision problems in the future. One partial solution to this is a relatively new technology called Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT). This is a piece of optical equipment that uses the scattering of light to create 3D images of the eye. This can be used to get an earlier and more precise diagnosis of conditions such as glaucoma, diabetes-linked retinopathy, and age-related macular degeneration. Companies involved with OCT include Topcon, Canon, Nidek Co, and Optopol Technology SA. You saw it here first!

Ref: Nikkei Weekly (Japan) 15 February 2010, ‘OCT device allows early diagnosis of eye diseases’,
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Search terms: Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT), aging, glaucoma, macular degeneration, diagnos