Human Nature

Waking Up With the Face of a Corpse

And other news from science and technology.

(For the latest Human Nature columns on Hurricane Katrina, fetal pain, and animal rights, click here.)

Finalists are being screened for the world’s first face transplant. The face will be taken from a corpse. The idea is to give a real face to a burn victim who otherwise looks like a monster. Critics say the procedure is too physically and psychologically risky to justify for an aesthetic condition. Defenders say the face won’t look like the dead person (because the recipient’s bones and muscles will shape it) and it’s safer than the current practice of using other body parts to make a new face.

Scientists are zeroing in on a Parkinson’s drug that can cause compulsive gambling. The culprit seems to be pramipexole. In some cases, patients began to gamble pathologically soon after taking the drug. In other cases, they stopped gambling after they stopped taking it.

A national survey shows increased reporting of oral and lesbian sex. According to self-reports, 1) Most boys and girls aged 15-19 have had oral sex, slightly more than have had vaginal sex; 2) 14 percent of women aged 18-29 have had sex with a woman; and 3) among men aged 15-44, 6 percent have had oral sex with a man, and 4 percent have had anal sex with a man. The early spin is that the first two findings can be explained by fear of pregnancy.

Massachusetts legislators overrode the governor’s veto of nonprescription access to the morning-after pill. The votes were 37-0 in the Senate and 139-16 in the House.

Drug treatment for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder has doubled among adults aged 20 to 44 in four years. Among kids, it’s up by more than half. Supporters say more sufferers are being cured. Skeptics say shrinks are stretching the definition of ADHD to diagnose more people, and some people may be using the drugs to lose weight.

A Brookings Institution report says kids of gay parents “show no differences in cognitive abilities, behavior, general emotional development … self-esteem, depression, or anxiety. In the few cases where differences in emotional development are found, they tend to favor children raised in lesbian families.”

The baby whose brain-dead mother was kept alive to bring her to term died. Doctors delivered the baby two months early because cancer in the mother’s body threatened the pregnancy. The premature birth ended up killing the baby.

False belief can physically alter pain. One study shows that placebos trigger painkilling endorphins; another shows that self-reported pain matches the amount of painful stimulus people are told they’ll get, not the amount they actually get. Pain relief from being told that a painful stimulus will be less than it really is “rivals the effects of a clearly analgesic dose of morphine.”

Britain authorized creation of embryos with three parents. The third parent, a woman, contributes a small amount of DNA found in mitochondria, cellular components outside the nucleus. The idea is to protect children who might get disease-causing mitochondrial DNA from their mothers.

Fetuses can show “crying behavior” at 28 weeks. After a noise in the mother’s abdomen, ultrasound shows a “startle” response, deep breathing, and chin “quivering.” Researchers say this implies brain development sufficient to recognize the sound as bad. (For Human Nature’s take on fetal pain, click here.)

Gene research suggests our brains are rapidly evolving. Two alleles (gene variants) that promote brain size have been spreading, arguably in correlation with agriculture, civilization, and writing. Critics say the alleles may be spreading for non-brain-related reasons. They fear that  the research might be used to support racism, since in one gene, “About 70 percent of people in most European and East Asian populations carry this allele … but it is much rarer in most sub-Saharan Africans.”

Leon Kass, the chairman of President Bush’s bioethics council, is resigning. Some liberals accused him of steering the council to suit Republican politics during its debates over stem cells and cloning. The council divided on both issues. The new chairman will be the 85-year-old ex-president of Catholic University. (For Human Nature’s take, click here.)

Filthy water is beginning to kill people in New Orleans. Tests of floodwater show “fecal bacteria and lead in concentrations considered unsafe by the EPA,” and rescue workers are getting lesions. (For Human Nature’s take on Hurricane Katrina, click here.)

An inventor is marketing a female condom that tortures rapists. According to Reuters, “The device, made of latex and held firm by shafts of sharp barbs, can only be removed from the man by surgery.” The inventor “said women had tried it for comfort and it had been tested on a plastic male model but not yet on a live man.”

Parasites turn insects into zombies. A worm grows inside a grasshopper, eats nearly all of its organs, then injects proteins into the brain to make the grasshopper jump into water, where the grasshopper dies and the worm can propagate. A wasp larva similarly commandeers spiders to make them build larva homes before the larva kills the spider.

Coastal overbuilding and overpopulation are worsening hurricane disasters. More than 1,000 people settle in U.S. coastal counties every day; the coastal population of Florida has multiplied by 65. Necessary evacuation time has doubled along the Mississippi coast and tripled on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

People are using cell phone cameras to catch flashers. The cameras have caught three New York subway flashers this year; 500 million people may have them by the end of the year. Proponents hail the trend as public shaming and citizen journalism; critics fear online “vigilantes” and “lynching.”

A survey suggests one-quarter to one-half of sun-tanners may be addicted to tanning. Some scientists think tanning could produce endorphins that cause the addiction. Skeptics think the theory is bogus but possibly self-fulfilling if it makes tanners think they can’t stop.

Some Germans are blaming Hurricane Katrina on U.S. environmental policies. A government minister said President Bush “closes his eyes to the economic and human damages that are inflicted on his country … by natural disasters, like Katrina, through neglected climate protection.” A German newspaper said “it will likely take a couple more hurricanes of the magnitude of Katrina before America changes its appalling environmental policies.”

Scientists are debating whether men will disappear. The male-defining Y chromosome has dwindled from 1,000 genes to 27 during the past 300 million years. But the loss seems to have stopped in the last 6 million years, and some researchers think they’ve found a mechanism that keeps the rest from vanishing.

Sixty-four percent of Americans want schools to teach creationism along with evolution. Forty-two percent think “living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time,” and another 18 percent believe in evolution but think a supreme being guides it.

The FDA approved a drug to make short kids taller. Patients who got the drug grew an inch more per year than patients who didn’t get it. It’s approved for rare conditions, but physicians think parents of other short kids will finagle prescriptions for it.

An FDA official quit to protest “abortion politics” in FDA obstruction of over-the-counter access to the morning-after pill. Agency scientists recommended approval of the pill but were overruled by the director. The agency denies bias. (For Human Nature’s take on the latest abortion politics, click here.)

A hormone increases male life spans 31 percent in mice. Female life spans increased 19 percent. Reports conflict over whether the hormone is risky or not. The eventual idea is to apply it to humans.

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) The hurricane and the bioethics council. 2) The looting of New Orleans. 3) The political use of fetal pain. 4) The difference between blacks and animals. 5) Bill Frist, closet pro-choicer. 6) The emerging technology of artificial wombs. 7) The case for  growing embryos for their parts. 8) The evolution of creationism.