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Humor, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Looking at how a child’s sense of humor takes its shape

Looking at how a child's sense of humor takes its shape

girl2Where does a child’s sense of humor come from? That depends on how you define humor and where you look to find it. A recent blog post from the Cognitive Neuroscience Society reports:

Humor can be a very complex and hard concept for some kids to grasp, said [Jessica Black, PhD,] of the Graduate School of Social Work Boston College, speaking yesterday about her poster on this new work at the CNS meeting in Boston. It requires people to both detect and resolve incongruities and to find amusement – involving many regions of the brain, including those that process cognitive computations and those that process emotions.

Black and others, including Allan Reiss, MD, the study’s director, and Pascal Vrticka, PhD, both of Stanford, studied how different brain regions were activated as children watched a video with funny, positive or neutral content. Twenty-two children ages 6 to 13 were asked to rate their ability to create and appreciate humor. Then, researchers examined their brain activity using fMRI scans.

The CNS blog post continues:

In general, the researchers found greater brain activity in children who rated themselves low on the sense of humor scale. The systems related to detecting incongruities and those involved in language and working memory had to ramp up to process the funny videos, as did the arousal network that is usually more active when processing negative emotional information. Interestingly, the brain activity related to social processing was lower in these children, suggesting perhaps more difficulty in being able to think about the mental state of others.

Their results suggest that children with a low sense of humor may require more cognitive effort to process humor, Black said. The data also imply that children with a low sense of humor may experience stress and increased levels of arousal during social interactions involving humor.

Previously: A closer look at the way our brains process humorHumor as a mate selection strategy for women? and Making kids laugh for science: Study shows how humor activates children’s brains
Photo by Maria del Carmen Gomez

Medical Education, Medicine and Society, Stanford News

Studying the humanities to address “the messiness of human life”

Studying the humanities to address "the messiness of human life"

Life’s problems and people are often complex, ambiguous and soft to the touch. This holds true even in the medical sciences and professions that require precision in data collection and analysis; critical thinking skills and a broad, flexible world view are therefore necessary components of a balanced education. The School of Medicine‘s dean, Lloyd Minor, MD, explains in a recent op-ed for the Stanford Daily why anyone invested or even interested in medicine should pay attention to the humanities.

From the piece:

Consider the child with autism or the adult with Alzheimer’s disease. A physician can make a diagnosis but cannot offer a cure or a satisfying answer to the question “why?” Even for conditions that we can prevent or treat, patient behavior can significantly impact the success or failure of an intervention. For the hypertensive patient, no amount of prescribed medication will impact the social factors that may be inhibiting lifestyle modification. The specificity of scientific interventions does not account for the messiness of human life.

We as physicians heal best when we listen to and communicate with our patients and seek to understand the challenges they face in their lives. The perspectives on illness, emotions and the human condition we gain from literature, religion and philosophy provide us with important contexts for fulfilling these roles and responsibilities.

Previously: Becoming Doctors: Stanford med students reflect and share experiences through podcastsThoughts on the arts and humanities in shaping a medical careerEncouraging alternative routes to medical school and Stanford dean discusses changing expectations for medical students

Ethics, In the News, Sports, Stanford News, Women's Health

Arguing against sex testing in athletes

Arguing against sex testing in athletes

Testosterone does not a man – nor a woman – make. So argues Stanford medical anthropologist Katrina Karkazis, PhD, in a New York Times op-ed today. She cites evidence against the scientific and ethical soundness of sex-testing policies used since 2011 by sports governing organizations including the International Olympic Committee, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association and the International Association of Athletics Federations.

From the piece:

Rather than trying to decide whether an athlete is “really” female, as decades of mandatory sex tests did, the current policy targets women whose bodies produce more testosterone than is typical. If a female athlete’s T level is deemed too high, a medical team selected by the sport’s governing bodies develops a “therapeutic proposal.” This involves either surgery or drugs to lower the hormone level. If doctors can lower the athlete’s testosterone to what the governing bodies consider an appropriate level, she may return to competition. If she refuses to cooperate with the investigation or the medical procedures, she is placed under a permanent ban from elite women’s sports.

Sports authorities argue that screening for high T levels is needed to keep women’s athletics fair, reasoning that testosterone improves performance. Elite male athletes generally outperform women, and this difference has been attributed to men’s higher testosterone levels. Ergo, women with naturally high testosterone are thought to have an unfair advantage over other women.

But these assumptions do not match the science. A new study in Clinical Endocrinology fits with other emerging research on the relationship between natural testosterone and performance, especially in elite athletes, which shows that T levels can’t predict who will run faster, lift more weight or fight harder to win. The study, of a sample of 693 elite athletes, revealed a significant overlap in testosterone levels among men and women: 16.5 percent of the elite male athletes had testosterone in the so-called female range; nearly 14 percent of the women were above the “female” range.

Karkazis concludes, “Barring female athletes with high testosterone levels from competition is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Worse, it is pushing young women into a choice they shouldn’t have to make: either to accept medically unnecessary interventions with harmful side effects or to give up their future in sports.”

Previously: Is the International Olympic Committee’s policy governing sex verification fair?, Researchers challenge proposed testosterone testing in select female Olympic athletes and Gender ambiguity gets attention

Medical Education, Stanford News, Videos

High schoolers share thoughts from Stanford’s Med School 101

High schoolers share thoughts from Stanford's Med School 101

Scenes from this year’s Med School 101: In the video above, three high-school students describe their interests in science and the sessions they attended at Stanford Medicine’s recent daylong event for local teens. One of the presenters, Anand Veeravagu, MD, also weighed in, saying: “I really wanted to share with them my journey from graduating high school all the way to being a neurosurgery resident and what that involves.” (A lot of training!)

For those interested in seeing more, images from the event can be found on our Flickr photo set.

Previously: The brain whisperer: Stanford neurologist talks about his work, shares tips with aspiring doctorsAt Med School 101, teens learn that it’s “so cool to be a doctor” and Med School 101 kicks off on Stanford campus today

Events, Medicine and Literature, Medicine and Society, Stanford News

Stanford’s Medicine and the Muse symposium features author of “The Kite Runner”

Stanford's Medicine and the Muse symposium features author of "The Kite Runner"

Hosseini SmallNext Wednesday, Stanford’s annual Medicine and the Muse symposium will bring together medical student art, music, photography and literature in a series of performances and exhibits. During the event, Khaled Hosseini, MD, bestselling author of The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns and And the Mountains Echoed, will join Paul Costello, chief communications officer for the School of Medicine, in conversation. He will also be available for book signing.

This year’s Medicine and the Muse theme is “Renewal,” informed by Hosseini’s writing. The event “is an opportunity for medical students to share their artistic talents, and to hear from a physician who has followed his muse to success in writing,” said Grace Xiong, a member of the medical student committee organizing the event.

Medicine and the Muse takes place April 16, from 5:30-8:30 PM in Berg Hall of the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge on the Stanford campus. The event is free and open to the public, but RSVPs are requested. To RSVP, e-mail mandm2014@lists.stanford.edu, or call 650-725-3448.

Photo by Elena Selbert

Bioengineering, Global Health, Medicine and Society, Stanford News, Videos

Music box inspires a chemistry set for kids and scientists in developing countries

Music box inspires a chemistry set for kids and scientists in developing countries

Over the past few weeks my colleague Kris Newby has been writing about the Foldscope, the 50-cent microscope developed by bioengineer Manu Prakash, PhD. Today Prakash is announcing another device that will bring high tech science to the developing world – and to kids.

The device won a contest from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Society for Science & the Public to “Reimagine the chemistry set for the 21st century.” In the contest materials, the two groups cite the absence of chemistry sets on the market today that inspire creativity.

As the parent of two boys I have to agree. Chemistry toys these days come with prepackaged materials and set instructions for how to use them. Sure, I’m not enthusiastic about some of the dangerous chemicals in the kits that inspired an older generation of scientists, but a bit of creativity would be nice.

Prakash took inspiration from a simple music box to design a handheld chemistry set that can be programmed using holes punched in a paper tape. The prize came from the set’s use as a toy to inspire kids, but Prakash and graduate student George Korir also envision it being used to carry out science in developing countries. They say it can be built for about $5. Prakash told me, “I’d started thinking about this connection between science education and global health. The things that you make for kids to explore science [are] also exactly the kind of things that you need in the field because they need to be robust and they need to be highly versatile.”

My Stanford Report story goes on to describe how it works:

Like the music box, the prototype includes a hand cranked wheel and paper tape with periodic holes punched by the user. When a pin encounters a hole in the tape it flips and activates a pump that releases a single drop from a channel. In the simplest design, 15 independent pumps, valves and droplet generators can all be controlled simultaneously.

Prakash and Korir didn’t set out to make a kit for kids. Their idea was that a portable, programmable chemistry kit could be used around the world to test water quality, provide affordable medical diagnostic tests, assess soil chemistry for agriculture or as a snake bite venom test kit. It could even be used in modern labs to carry out experiments on a very small scale.

This chemistry set and the Foldscope are both part of what Prakash calls “frugal science.” There’s more about how the device works in the technical paper.

Previously: Stanford bioengineer develops a 50-cent paper microscope and Free DIY microscope kits to citizen scientists with inspiring project ideas
Photo in featured entry box by George Korir

Neuroscience, Patient Care, Stanford News, Videos

Treating intractible epilepsy

Treating intractible epilepsy

In this new Stanford Medicine video, patient Laura Koellstad tells the story of how her life changed with her first seizure and a diagnosis of intractible epilepsy, and then turned around following treatment at Stanford. Josef Parvizi, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences, and Robert Fisher, MD, PhD, director of the Stanford Comprehensive Epilepsy Program, explain the functional mapping and surgical procedures used to treat Koellstad’s condition, allowing her to return to work and regain her ability to drive.

Previously: The brain whisperer: Stanford neurologist talks about his work, shares tips with aspiring doctorsHow epilepsy patients are teaching Stanford scientists more about the brain and Implanting electrodes to treat epilepsy, better understand the brain

Medicine and Society, Orthopedics, Stanford News

Art and anatomy: Decades-old collaboration brings augmented reality into the hands of Rodin

Art and anatomy: Decades-old collaboration brings augmented reality into the hands of Rodin

This Wednesday, the Cantor Art Museum is launching a first-of-its-kind exhibit, “Inside Rodin’s Hands: Art, Technology, and Surgery.” This unique exhibit uses 21st Century technology to look inside the works of Rodin’s 19th Century sculptures.  As described by Tracie White in today’s Inside Stanford Medicine, the exhibit:

…is a feat of interdisciplinary collaboration that celebrates a long-time connection between sculptor Auguste Rodin’s fascination with the human form and medicine’s fascination with human anatomy.

“A deep and rich history unites the art of the museum with the medical school,” said Connie Wolf, museum director, which has one of the largest Rodin exhibits, with 200 of his sculptures, including the Thinker and the Gates of Hell. “These statues have inspired faculty at the School of Medicine. Art is informing medicine in this exhibit. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever done before.”

Indeed, the rich history that Wolf refers to goes back to the early 90’s when Albert Elsen, PhD, joined forces with Robert Chase, MD. Elsen, a leading authority on Rodin, was the person most responsible for amassing the museum’s huge collection. Chase, then head of the Division of Anatomy, knew his art, too, having taught a popular course on Renaissance art and anatomy.

Because Rodin was known to use models with diseases and deformities, these two “super docents” delighted in taking med students on strolls through the Rodin Sculpture Garden. They’d wend their way through the garden, from one statue to the next, prompting the students to determine whether there were actual clues belying a medical condition, or were they simply seeing the results of the sculpture’s artistic license?

In 1991, I was lucky enough to tag along on one of these walks. By that time, I’d logged scads of Saturdays and Sundays at the garden, usually with drawing pad in hand. This time, it was a very different kind of tour, more akin to doing rounds in the hospital. These works of art that were models for my drawings, were now being diagnosed like patients. I was fascinated from the get-go. The last stop on our tour was the Gates of Hell. After an introduction to the monumental bronze, the focus shifted to the final “patient,” the life-sized statue of Eve, positioned on the right-side of the Gates. She sparked the liveliest discussion of the tour: Was the model for Eve pregnant? If so, how far along might she have been?

I remember how excited I was, seeing Rodin’s art in an entirely new way. It never entered my mind, that decades down the road, I’d get to experience that newly enlightened excitement, again. Nor, did it occur to me that I’d get to witness the trajectory that spans the last 23 years.

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Cancer, Genetics, Patient Care, Research, Science, Stanford News

Blood will tell: In Stanford study, tiny bits of circulating tumor DNA betray hidden cancers

Blood will tell: In Stanford study, tiny bits of circulating tumor DNA betray hidden cancers

5507073256_36387f3df9_zBlood is a remarkable liquid. Not only does it carry red blood cells to deliver oxygen, it also transports cells of the immune system to protect us from infection. But there’s another, hidden payload: bits of genetic material derived from dying cells throughout the body. In a patient with cancer, a tiny fraction of this circulating DNA comes from tumor cells.

Now researchers in the laboratories of Stanford radiation oncologist Maximilian Diehn, MD, PhD, and hematologist and oncologist Ash Alizadeh, MD, PhD, have found a way to read these genetic messages and use them to diagnose lung tumors and monitor how they respond (or don’t) to treatment. The technique is highly sensitive and should be broadly applicable to many types of solid tumors. It also bypasses some of the more fussy patient-optimization steps that have previously been required.

From our release:

“We set out to develop a method that overcomes two major hurdles in the circulating tumor DNA field,” said [Diehn]. “First, the technique needs to be very sensitive to detect the very small amounts of tumor DNA present in the blood. Second, to be clinically useful it’s necessary to have a test that works off the shelf for the majority of patients with a given cancer.”

“We’re trying to develop a general method to detect and measure disease burden,” said Alizadeh, a hematologist and oncologist. “Blood cancers like leukemias can be easier to monitor than solid tumors through ease of access to the blood. By developing a general method for monitoring circulating tumor DNA, we’re in effect trying to transform solid tumors into liquid tumors that can be detected and tracked more easily.”

Using their technique, the researchers were able to identify 50 percent of patients with Stage I cancers, and all patients with more advanced disease. The research was published Sunday in Nature Medicine.

Continue Reading »

Clinical Trials, NIH, Nutrition, Obesity, Research, Stanford News

Stanford seeks participants for weight-loss study

Stanford seeks participants for weight-loss study

Should diets come in different shapes and sizes? Stanford researchers are exploring that question and are seeking participants for a year-long weight-loss study that aims to understand why people may respond differently to the same diet. Titled “One Diet Does Not Fit All,” the study will examine how factors such as genetic influences and eating and sleeping habits have an impact on a diet’s effectiveness.

From a release:

Participants will be assigned randomly to either a very low-fat or very low-carbohydrate diet for 12 months. They will be required to attend weekly classes at Stanford for the first three months, once every other week for the following three months, and once a month for the remainder of the study. Participants must also be willing to have fasting blood samples drawn four times during the 12-month period and participate in online and written surveys. They will receive all test results at the end of the study.

The study is part of a five-year project funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Nutrition Science Initiative. Following an enrollment last year of 200, this spring researchers hope to enroll at least 135 men and women (pre-menopausal only) between the ages of 18 and 50 who are overweight or obese and are generally in good health.

For a complete list of inclusion criteria, click here. To determine eligibility for this study, complete a brief online survey. For more information, contact Jennifer Robinson at nutrition@stanford.edu.

Previously: How physicians address obesity may affect patients’ success in losing weight, To meet weight loss goals, start exercise and healthy eating programs at the same time, The trouble with the current calorie-counting system, Smaller plates may not be helpful tools for dieters, study suggests and Losing vitamins – along with weight – on a diet

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