Human Nature

Sleep It Off

Why staying up makes you fat.

(For the latest Human Nature columns on cybersex, penis transplants, and the war over contraception, click here.)

An analysis of recent data suggests sleep deficits are making people fat. In studies, 1) sleep shortage in babies and toddlers correlated with obesity at age 7, 2) sleep shortage in adults correlated with high levels of a hormone that tells the brain to eat, and 3) kids who woke up tired got less exercise, which in turn would have helped them sleep. Hypothesis: Sleep shortage distorts your body’s regulation of appetite and energy use, thereby promoting obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Researchers’ advice: 1) Take the TV and computer out of your kid’s bedroom. 2) Enforce a regular bedtime. 3) No big meals before bed. 4) Let your teenager sleep longer on weekends. (For Human Nature’s previous update on sleep and fat, click here. For sleep and hypertension, click here. For sleep and teens, click here.)

Scientists used human fetal stem cells to strengthen spinal cords in rats. The cells, taken from the spinal cord of an aborted eight-week fetus, differentiated (specialized) into functional spinal neurons and slowed the rats’ degenerative neural disease, postponing their deaths. Differentiation, which is difficult in adult spinal cords (as the researchers noted), may have been easier in this case because fetal stem cells are more differentiated than embryonic stem cells. According to Reuters, “A company associated with the researchers is incubating batches of the human cells, taken from an aborted fetus, and hopes to market them as a treatment for several sorts of paralyzing conditions.” (For Human Nature’s take on fetus farming, click here.)

The United States ratcheted up the militarization of space. Its new policy changes the official U.S. priority from knowledge to national security, calls for celestial missile defenses, opposes treaties that “limit U.S. access to or use of space,” and claims the right to bar any entity “hostile to U.S. interests” from space. Government spin: 1) We’re not developing “weapons in space.” 2) We’re working on technologies that help civilian needs, such as satellite communications. 3) We don’t need treaties, since there’s no space arms race. Cynical translations: 1) That depends on the meaning of “in.” 2) You’re using civilian purposes as a fig leaf for satellite warfare capabilities. 3) You’re rejecting treaties because you’re ahead in the arms race. (For previous updates on U.S. space militarization, click here and here. For Human Nature’s take on aerial military drones, click here.)

The Journal of the American Medical Association says tongue piercing caused extreme pain in a teenager. The practice has previously caused brain abscess, heart infection, tetanus, dental damage, and in one case, a “second tongue.” In this case, the tongue stud rubbed a nerve and triggered “stabbing pains … that lasted 10 to 30 seconds and struck 20 to 30 times a day.” Doctors’ advice: This is unusual, but don’t pierce your tongue. Tattooists’ advice: Make sure you get pierced by a pro and use “implant grade” studs. AP’s summary: “Tongue piercing linked to pain.” Human Nature’s summary: Duh. (For HN’s take on self-mutilation, click here. For male versus female circumcision, click here. For bloodsucking circumcision, click here. For tattoo legalization, click here.)

The FDA plans to approve the sale of food made from cloned animals. Opponents’ arguments: 1) It’s unnatural. 2) It could alter milk and meat so they’re unsafe. 3) It’s cruel to animals, since most cloned embryos are defective. 4) We should evaluate each cloned product separately, like drugs, instead of approving the whole technology. 5) It’ll flop because the public fears it. Supporters’ arguments: 1) It’ll help us mass-produce great food. 2) It’s no more unnatural than animal IVF, which we already use to improve food. 3) It’s not genetic engineering. 4) Studies show cloned food is no different from regular food. 5) It’s safer for animals than it used to be, as we improve the technology and cause fewer defective embryos. 6) You’ve already eaten offspring of clones that have unofficially entered the food supply. 7) Public fear won’t be a problem, because cloned food won’t be labeled. (For Human Nature’s take on growing meat in labs, click here.)

Scientists are looking for the causes of early puberty. Symptoms: pubic hair, big genitals, breasts, menstruation, and male aggression. Age of onset: As early as preschool. Suspected factors: 1) Adult use of Andro, testosterone skin creams, and “prohormone” sprays that are passed to kids by contact; 2) estrogen in cosmetics; 3) shampoos with estrogen or placental extract; 4) industrial byproducts in food made from contaminated animals. Internet sales pitch: Buy our cream, and we’ll guarantee your erections. Fine print: And we’ll throw in a few more for your first-grader. (For Human Nature’s take on teachers who have sex with kids, click here. For implants that can delay puberty, click here.)

Electrical stimulation can “restart” the brain. Brain scans of a man who had been minimally conscious for six years found that key reasoning and linguistic circuits were intact. By stimulating his thalamus (which coordinates other brain regions), scientists restored coherent speech and control of his left arm. Stimulation has previously helped some people with epilepsy, Parkinson’s, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Authors’ conclusion: Maybe we should stop giving up on patients who seem insufficiently unresponsive. Critiques: 1) This is just one minimally conscious patient. Let’s see if it works on others. 2) It still hasn’t worked on patients in vegetative states, such as Terri Schiavo. (For Human Nature’s take on unresponsive patients who are actually buried alive in their own skulls, click here. For the willful misreading of responsiveness in Schiavo’s case, click here.)

A Japanese woman gave birth to her grandchild. She’s at least the third woman to do so; the others were American and British. The child’s mother provided the egg, which was then fertilized in vitro, but she couldn’t carry it to term because she’d lost her uterus to cancer. So the grandmother, in her 50s, provided the womb. Since Japan regards the delivering woman (not the egg-providing woman) as the mother, the child had to be registered as the direct offspring of its grandmother, then formally adopted by its direct biological mother. Japanese government’s view: It’s bad to confuse parentage by dividing biological from surrogate motherhood. Contrary view: Then is it good to reunite biology and surrogacy by putting the embryo in grandma? (For Human Nature’s previous update on a surrogate mother who delivered quintuplets, click here. For China’s crackdown on surrogate motherhood, click here.)

Psychiatrists are debating whether to classify compulsive buying as a disorder akin to alcoholism. Doing so would help “shopaholics” get treated but might also let them escape legal responsibility for their debts. A study says more than 10 million Americans may qualify for the diagnosis. Liberal view A: Some people are particularly prone to getting hooked on overspending, so we should regulate marketing to prevent retailers and credit-card companies from exploiting them and ruining their lives. Liberal view B: Many compulsive shoppers are driven by anxiety, mood disorders, addictions, or ADHD, so we should treat them with drugs for those ills. Conservative view: When you experts figure out whether to blame biology or blame society, let us know. (For Human Nature’s previous update on compulsive buying, click here.)

Norway is funding the world’s first museum exhibit on gay animals. Examples: beetles, parrots, penguins, and swans. “One photograph shows two giant erect penises flailing above the water as two male right whales rub together. Another shows a male giraffe mounting another for sex.” Previously, a zoo in Holland featured gay animal couples. Exhibit organizers’ view: “Homosexuality is found throughout the animal kingdom, it is not against nature.” Right-wing Christian view: The organizers should “burn in hell.” Cynical view: Maybe homophobia is natural, too. (For Human Nature’s take on homosexuality, polygamy, and nature, click here. For gay covenant marriage, click here.)

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) The perils of policing cybersex. 2) Mark Foley’s alcohol rehab. 3) Pro-lifers against contraception. 4) The first penis transplant. 5) Is eugenics better than sex? 6)  Buried alive in your own skull. 7) The global explosion of fat. 8) The case for genital mutilation. 9) Stop killing meat and start growing it. 10) The war on tanning.