Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Well, as I try to clean out the files, there are always lots of articles about the animal that absorbs the most research money; humans. There have been some interesting medical studies in the last few months so I thought I’d share a few.
As you have no doubt noticed, I’m attracted to the bizarre and this first story is certainly that. I’ve noticed that lots of people on Guam have a great fear of the dentist. I’m not sure this will help!
Humans have had cavities for a very long time. Even Lucy the Australopithecine and her friends and neighbors suffered from toothache. Today we know what causes these painful holes in the teeth: a combination of too much sugar (did you ever notice that the metal-mouth little kids always seem to be holding a soft drink or a candy bar?) and bad cleaning practices. But those causes are very subtle and although we’ve forgotten it, most of your ancestors knew exactly what caused cavities. Tooth worms.
The belief in tooth worms was remarkably widespread. Most people believed that the tooth worm bored a hole into the tooth and hid beneath the surface. It caused a toothache by wriggling around, and the pain subsided when the worm was resting. Although no one could tell you exactly what tooth worms looked like, they’ve taken many forms through the years. British folklore said the tooth worm looked like an eel. The Germans believed the maggot-like worm was red, blue and gray in color. The Chinese and Japanese also believed cavities were caused by tooth worms.
Tooth worms weren’t ruled out as the cause of tooth pain until the 18th century. During the Age of Enlightenment, doctors replaced superstition with science, and the Western world gradually realized what really causes cavities. But the change didn’t happen overnight — some cultures believed tooth worms to be the cause of tooth pain well into the 1900s!
Recently scientists at the University of Maryland Dental School have taken some pictures of the inside of a tooth with an electron microscope and discovered, yep you guessed it, something that looks remarkably like . . . worms. The structures are extremely tiny and they aren’t worms, but what they are is still in question.
The pictures showed cylindrical objects extending or ‘growing’ out of the natural pores or tubules in teeth. There are more than 50,000 of these tubules in every square millimeter of a human tooth. They act as channels that run from the nerve up through the tooth and they transmit hot or cold sensitivity to the nerve.
Dentists are puzzled by the worm-like structures. “Most say ‘I have no idea.’ Others say they are made of bacteria, or minerals, or the branches of yeast cells (C. albicans) which have infected the tooth structure, or perhaps they are a cellular process of the dentinal tubules,” says Gary Hack, DDS, associate professor in the Dental School. For the sake of humoring his students, Hack says, tongue-in-cheek, “I call them tooth worms and I’m sticking to it.”
The scientists at Maryland made some observations that raise new questions. For example, they found two of the ‘worms’ in a single tubule, a discovery that says they probably aren’t natural extensions of the tubules.
The tubules ranged from 2.6 to 3.5 micrometers in diameter (a human hair is about 40 micrometers in diameter) and the worm-like structures were smaller than the tubules they were in. Some of the ‘worms’ extended as far as 9 micrometers out of the tubule opening. Some of them looked hollow but several of them appeared to be solid. Other pictures revealed a comparatively thin, hollow structure emerging from a single tubule.
What are they? Nobody knows yet but I agree with Dr. Hack. I’m going to call them tooth worms!
Scanning electron microscope image of worm-like structures ‘growing’ from dental tubules deep inside a molar. (Credit: University of Maryland, Baltimore)
And speaking of sugar, well, we all know what else it leads to besides cavities; it leads to weight gain. But there’s something else in your diet that leads to even more weight gain and that’s the consumption of animal fat. There’s a new study out that will either make you very angry or make you think “Hmmmm, that doesn’t surprise me at all.”
FAT = . . . . . STUPID?????
New research at Oxford University in England shows that rats fed a high-fat diet have a dramatic reduction in their physical endurance and a decline in their cognitive ability after just nine days. The study was funded by the British Heart Foundation and may have implications not only for those eating lots of high-fat foods, but also athletes looking for the optimal diet for training and patients with metabolic disorders.
Rats that were switched from their standard low-fat feed to a high-fat diet showed a surprisingly quick reduction in their physical performance. After just nine days, they could only run 50 percent as far on a treadmill as those that remained on the low-fat feed.
High-fat diets, common here on Guam, are known to be harmful in the long term and lead to problems like obesity, diabetes and heart failure. They are also associated with a decline in cognitive ability over long time spans. But little attention has been paid to the effect of high-fat diets in the short term.
All 42 rats in the study were initially fed a standard feed with a low fat content of 7.5 percent. Their physical endurance was measured by how long they could run on a treadmill and their short-term or ‘working’ memory was measured in a maze task. Half of the rats were then switched to a high-fat diet where 55 percent of the calories came from fat. After four days of getting used to the new diet, the endurance and cognitive performance of the rats on the low- and high-fat diets was compared for another five days.
The standard feed is low in fat and very few humans (except for perhaps, vegetarians) routinely consume only 7.5 percent of their calories from fat. The high-fat diet, where 55 percent of the calories came from fat, sounds high but it’s actually not extraordinarily high by human standards. A junk food diet would come close to that figure.
But here’s the really interesting part. Not only did the ‘fat rats’ have trouble with the treadmill, they also had trouble with the maze. The number of correct decisions before making a mistake dropped from over six to an average of 5 to 5.5.
While this research was done in rats, the Oxford team is now carrying out similar studies in humans, looking at the effect of a short term high-fat diet on exercise and cognitive ability. The results will be important not only in informing athletes of the best diets to help their training routine, but also in developing ideal diets for patients with metabolic disorders such as diabetes, insulin resistance or obesity. People with such conditions can have high levels of fat in the blood and show poor exercise tolerance, some cognitive decline, and can even develop dementia over time.
Does fat equal stupid? I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
A new study shows that rats, when switched to a high-fat diet from their standard low-fat feed, show a surprisingly quick reduction in their physical performance. (Credit: iStockphoto/Leigh Schindler)
For some of us, that weight gain thing is offset by smoking. Keep reading!
THEY DON’T CALL ‘EM ‘COFFIN NAILS’ FOR NUTHIN’!
It certainly won’t be a best seller, but if people paid as much attention to The Tobacco Atlas as they do to say, Twilight, things here on old planet Earth would be a lot better. Don’t believe me? Don’t stop reading now!
Data found in The Tobacco Atlas, which is published by the American Cancer Society and World Lung Foundation, shows that tobacco use kills some six million people each year- more than a third of them will die from cancer- and drains $500 billion annually from global economies.
According to The Tobacco Atlas, 2.1 million cancer deaths per year will be attributable to tobacco by 2015. By 2030, 83% of these deaths will occur in low and middle-income countries. Unique among all cancer-causing agents, the danger of tobacco is completely preventable if you and your family and neighbors DO NOT SMOKE.
The global economy lost a staggering $500 billion due to tobacco use last year. These economic costs come as a result of lost productivity, misused resources, missed opportunities for taxation, and premature death.
- Because 25 percent of smokers die and many more become ill during their most productive years, income loss devastates families and communities.
- Cigarettes are the world’s most widely smuggled legal consumer product. In 2006, about 600 billion smuggled cigarettes made it to the market, representing an enormous missed tax opportunity for governments, as well as a missed opportunity to prevent many people from starting to smoke and encourage others to quit.
- Tobacco replaces potential food production on almost 4 million hectares of the world’s agricultural land, equal to all of the world’s orange groves or banana plantations.
- In developing countries, smokers spend disproportionate sums of money relative to their incomes that could otherwise be spent on food, healthcare, and other necessities.
Burden Shift to the World’s Poorest Countries
The Tobacco Atlas also showcases a horrible fact. The tobacco industry has shifted its marketing and sales efforts to countries that have less effective public health policies and fewer tobacco controls in place:
- In 2010, 72 percent of those who die from tobacco related illnesses will be in low- and middle-income countries.
- Since 1960 global tobacco production has increased three-fold in low- and middle-resource countries while halving in high-resource countries.
- In Bangladesh alone, if the average household bought food with the money normally spent on tobacco, more than 10 million people would no longer suffer from malnutrition and 350 children under age five could be saved each day.
Look at yourself. Do you smoke? How much do you spend on cigarettes a month? What could you do for your children (besides be around longer) with that money? THINK!! (Unless all those gigantiburgers are keeping you from doing it!)