Macabre. Gross. Funny, in a twisted, fascinating way. What does happen to our bodies once we are dead and gone? Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, eventually and in most cases, unless you’ve donated your body to science and then the process is either sped up, as it is dipped in a tub of lye, or delayed indefinitely through plastination. In Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, author Mary Roach takes us on a wild romp through history and science, describing in unsettling detail how cadavers have been used, and are used, in medical research. Although the book is weirdly entertaining, given the subject matter, Roach is always respectful of the bodies, and the people who have donated them.
“The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I have never before had occasion to make the comparison, for never before today have I seen a head in a roasting pan. But here are forty of them, one per pan, resting face-up on what looks to be a small pet-food bowl. The heads are for plastic surgeons, two per head, to practice on. I’m observing a facial anatomy and face-lift refresher course, sponsored by a southern university medical center and led by a half-dozen of America’s most sought-after-face-lifters. The heads have been put in roasting pans – which are of the disposable aluminum variety – for the same reason that chickens are put in roasting pans: to catch the drippings. Surgery, even surgery upon the dead, is a tidy, orderly affair.”
In the chapter entitled “Crimes of Anatomy”, Roach takes us back before the time where there was a legal process in place to donate one’s body to science. In the early 1800s teachers of anatomy had to resort to other means of acquiring bodies on which to practice. Body snatching from recently dug graves was the more usual method, and there was a vigorous trade in the practice. The problem was that nobody wanted to be dissected. The common view of life after death was of the whole body making its way to heaven. Dissection was something only done to the bodies of executed mass murderers.
If only all science books were as entertaining as Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson explains the major scientific theories known to man with masterful storytelling skills. Weaving in richly researched details on the lives and characteristics of the foremost historical scientific figures, Bryson discourses on everything from the big bang theory and quantum physics, to paleontology and plate tectonics. As he put it, the book is about “…how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since.” Not just detailing what we know, Bryson describes how we learned what we now know.
Harvard researchers have found what those of us over forty have suspected for a while – that the brain’s learning and memory genes decline with age, starting in your early forties.
The researchers studied well-preserved brain tissue from 30 people, aged 26 to 106 at the time of death. The changes they found occurred in a wide variety of genes, with functions that range from regulating sleep to metabolizing fat. But most interesting was a marked decline in function among 20 genes involved in learning, memory and the plasticity, or flexibility, of brain function. As the subjects aged, these genes became damaged, reducing their effectiveness. “Some genes begin to decline much earlier than expected, as early as the early 40s,” says senior author Bruce Yanker, a professor of neurology and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital in Boston.
Here’s the link to the full Wall St. Journal article. The link should work for a few days.
I love stories like this… from the New Scientist, Diet of Worms Can Cure Bowel Disease. Studies have found that regular doses of pig whipworms can drastically relieve the symptoms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and Chron’s. Hats off to the brave volunteers for the first studies, who not knowing if this was going to work of not, intentially submitted their GI tracts to intestinal parasites.
Caught this in Sharon Begley’s column in Friday’s Wall St. Journal. (click here for full article, available for a few days). Stanford University’s Robert Sapolsky has observed that when the most aggressive, dominant members of a baboon clan are removed, the culture of the remaining baboons changes to become more peaceful. These changes persist even as new generations come into the clan either from birth or from other clans.
The most recent evidence of culture among animals comes from studies of olive baboons. It stands out because the learned behavior is so at odds with how badly baboons customarily behave.
Baboons tend to be fierce and aggressive, and the “Forest Troop” in Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve fits the mold. Males fought over everything (grub, girls …) and nothing. But in 1982, the aggressive males began raiding the garbage pit of a nearby tourist lodge, gorging on rotten meat. Almost half of the troop’s males — and all the aggressive ones — died of tuberculosis, leaving, as Stanford University biologist Robert Sapolsky puts it, “a cohort of atypically unaggressive survivors.”
I recently had a conversation with a retired X-Ray specialist physicist who claimed that radiation in low doses was actually good for you, citing the phenomena called “hormesis”. Incredulous, I looked up hormesis in Google and sure enough, there are thousands of studies showing that all sorts of toxins at low doses, including radiation, produce a beneficial effect biologically.