Mary Carmichael

Stories by Mary Carmichael

  • HEALTH: HELPING DEPRESSED KIDS

    It was a news story certain to stoke public fears. Last week the FDA announced that antidepressants, the very drugs that were supposed to lift patients out of emotional danger, might cause some of them to worsen and even turn suicidal in the first few weeks of therapy. Kids are particularly vulnerable, the FDA said. From now on, the drugs will come with a prominent warning label. But that won't be enough to soothe parents. With the science murky, they are starting to question whether their kids should be on the drugs at all--and even adult patients are starting to have some doubts.During the 14 years since a Harvard doctor first suggested a link between Prozac and suicide, the popularity of antidepressants has exploded. Thirty million Americans (including 10 million kids) take the drugs. Until now the FDA has been relatively silent on their possible dangers, although regulatory agencies in other countries have required warnings for years. But after trials indicated that depressed...
  • ENVIRONMENT: ASBESTOS, STILL LURKING

    It's been almost two decades since a series of lawsuits drew wide attention to the problem of asbestos. Compared with toxic mold, the cancer-causing fibers may not even be the scariest household hazard anymore. A brief panic after 9/11 was unwarranted; the slightly elevated asbestos levels near the WTC posed no danger. And last month Marshall Levin--the judge who presided over the huge, historic 1992 Baltimore asbestos suit, with a record 8,600 plaintiffs--died. So if the public thought the whole issue was dead, too, it could be forgiven.But the folks at the Environmental Working Group make a point of not forgetting, and they think Americans had better refresh their own memories. A new EWG report says 10,000 Americans die each year from asbestos-related illnesses--a trend that may be increasing, despite efforts to rid buildings of the substance. The EWG's Richard Wiles says the only way to stop the trend is to ban asbestos outright and offer free screenings to all. He also hopes...
  • VISITING MARS? DON'T DRINK THE WATER.

    When scientists try to describe what makes Earth special, they usually note that it's the "wet planet." Now they'll have to come up with some other distinction. Last week NASA confirmed that Mars, too, was once home to water--and the source may have looked a lot like a geological feature here on Earth. Mars's water, says Central Michigan University geologist Kathy Benison, probably existed in the form of "acid lakes," shallow beds of salty water found largely (until now) in Australia. Scientists' big break last week was finding jarosite. The mineral forms only in the presence of low-pH water. Acid-lake beds are also reservoirs of iron-rich compounds like hematite. Translation: they're Martian red. And Benison, a leading expert on ancient acid lakes, thinks the crystals recovered by the Mars rover resemble those she has found in Earthly sediments.If the Red Planet did have acid lakes long ago, alien-life enthusiasts have a lot to be, well, enthused about. Although the lakes on Earth...
  • REHABILITATION: HOW A BRAIN HEALS

    It was a truism, conventional wisdom, a nasty fact of life. For years, doctors insisted that after the initial six-month recovery period, stroke victims could not improve substantially. Traditional rehab focused on compensation: teaching a patient who lost the use of his right hand to write with his left. Little attention was paid to the affected side of the body. Stroke, after all, kills brain cells, and no one expected the brain to heal, especially years after a stroke, since it cannot regenerate.When Liz Layug had a stroke two years ago, she thought she'd never walk normally again. Three weeks of rehab didn't do much to change her mind. She went home from the hospital in a wheelchair, her left leg immobilized by a brace, her left hand immobilized by her brain's inability to command it. She couldn't drive, and even after she rose from the wheelchair on two legs again, she could barely cross the street in the time it took for WALK to click over to DON'T WALK. It's easy to assume...
  • ATKINS UNDER ATTACK

    Dr. Neal Barnard may come from a family of cattle ranchers, but he's got a beef against meat. For 19 years, the founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has preached the virtues of veganism, accusing parents of "child abuse" if they feed their kids so much as a slice of bacon and calling the Atkins-diet logo, a red A, "the scarlet letter." PCRM is a sort of anti-Atkins foundation, with attention-grabbing press conferences and a list of patients who blame the meaty diet for their poor health. So it's no surprise that in the carb war's latest skirmish, Barnard is the attacking general.What is surprising, though, is PCRM's new battle strategy. Last week, after years of conventional scientific warfare, the group went guerrilla, leaking to The Wall Street Journal a copy of a New York City medical examiner's report on Dr. Robert Atkins's death from a fall last April. The report said the 6-foot Atkins weighed 258 pounds and had congestive heart failure, hypertension and...
  • HEALTH: THE NEXT EPIDEMIC

    By the time RHDV had cut its swath through China, 140 million had died. In Italy, the disease killed 64 million, then spread as far as Czechoslovakia, Spain and Germany. The Australians brought the pathogen home willingly for tests on a nearby island; it escaped to the mainland and killed 30 million. Today it is endemic on four continents--and in spring 2000, it surfaced in Iowa. Twenty-seven died.If you don't know the story of RHDV, it's probably because you're not a rabbit. (That's what the R stands for.) While the decimation of animal populations can make headlines, they're generally not on the front page. But with new, A-1-worthy diseases now cropping up nearly every year, a team of researchers decided to look again at the RHDV outbreaks. What they found, reported in this week's Science, may help those seeking to contain the next big human epidemic. Before its sudden spread, RHDV--like many human pathogens--was a mild, under-the-radar virus. In computer models of large, freely...
  • TRASH: INTO TREASURE?

    Even without the time travel, it's a stretch to say that "Back to the Future Part II" was even a little realistic. Case in point: shouldn't we have flying cars by now? But one of the movie's other snazzy technologies--"Mr. Fusion," the trash bin cum energy source--is ready for reality. Like Mr. Fusion, Startech Environmental's new Plasma Converter can turn trash, even hazardous waste, into power, in the form of a hydrogen-rich gas. One converter is already running in Japan, and founder Joe Longo says he has bids out in "Europe, Latin America, the Pacific Rim"--pretty much everywhere. Two weeks ago he floated a proposal to the "garbage nerds" of the New York Citywide Recycling Advisory Board. (That's co-chair Kendall Christiansen's phrase, not ours.) Another company, Masada, is also seeking N.Y.C.'s attention and building a trash-to-ethanol plant in Middletown, N.Y. And Changing World Technologies is touting a machine that turns organic waste into oil. Changing world, indeed.
  • NO GIRLS, PLEASE

    For years Rukmini Devi helped Indian couples in the impoverished state of Bihar choose the sex of their children. But in her decades of work, she never once used PGD. Bihar has few ultrasound machines and fewer fertility labs; many of its towns lack even basic health clinics, and most couples don't know their children's gender before birth. But boys are a treasured commodity in Bihar, and if a couple can't choose a child's sex prenatally, they can see a dai like Devi. For 80 cents, says Devi, who is now retired, a dai will help a woman give birth. For 80 cents more, she will take a newborn girl, hold her upside down by the waist and "give a sharp jerk," snapping the spinal cord. She will then declare the infant stillborn. "Many couples insist that we get rid of the baby girl at birth," Devi says. "What can we do?"It is a question health officials in parts of Asia have been struggling to answer for years. Like most European countries, India, China and South Korea have banned sex...
  • HEALTH: BLOWING SMOKE

    If you had resolved to quit smoking this year, you've probably already given up. But a new Cornell study of almost 2,500 smokers ought to encourage you to keep trying, especially if you're female. The results show that women are twice as likely as men to get lung cancer. They're also more likely to die from it. "We've got to reach out to these women," says Dr. Claudia Henschke, the study's author. "They shouldn't start smoking, and they really need to stop." Why they're so vulnerable, no one knows; they may be more susceptible to carcinogens. Whatever the reason, the situation is grim for both sexes. In 2003 there were 171,900 new cases and 157,200 deaths. Lung cancer is largely preventable; those numbers are far too high.
  • AN IRREPRESSIBLE IDEA

    Remember "repressed memory"? In the 1990s it dominated headlines so much that you may well have wanted to repress the whole phenomenon yourself. Courts became clogged with cases based on memories of abuse the plaintiffs had suddenly "recovered," and even Lucy from "Peanuts," in doctor mode, made a diagnosis: "The fact that you can't remember being abducted by aliens and satanically abused," she told Charlie Brown, "is proof that it really happened."Scientists scoffed, of course. In many cases, therapists had planted ideas in their patients' minds. "There was an abundance of evidence that people could come to remember things they'd never experienced," says University of Oregon psychologist Michael Anderson. And if people could in fact repress real memories, there was little physiological evidence of it, much less an "abundance." But times change, and Anderson thinks he now has some. In this week's Science he makes the controversial argument that subconscious memory repression really...
  • DIET: FEELING FISHY ABOUT FISH

    For healthy eaters, the choice between beef and fish can seem like a no-brainer--one is linked to heart disease, and the other is linked to its prevention. Over the last decade, the pro-fish chorus has only grown louder as scientists have discovered that the omega-3 fatty acids found in many fish may ward off heart attacks, strokes and possibly cancer. And salmon, rich in omega-3s, is even promoted as a skin treatment. In light of the latest mad-cow scare, it might appear best to simply substitute fish for beef and stop worrying altogether--no threat of BSE, no heart disease, no wrinkles, no problem. But in the scientifically murky world of food safety, things are never that easy. Fish have problems of their own: their tissues can pick up pollutants from the tainted waters around them, including chemicals that may be harmful to humans, such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). And the list of risky species is growing. Last month the FDA warned women of childbearing age...
  • HEALTH: COLD COMFORT INDEED

    All the flu going around in the past few months has eclipsed that usual winter complaint: the common cold. But sniffles and coughing have one problem the flu doesn't. While antivirals can quell multiple flu symptoms in days, the common cold has no cure--only a host of sprays and syrups promising to temporarily soothe its many individual symptoms. Now, as alternative medicine has started earning acceptance (though somewhat grudgingly) in modern medical circles, scientists are starting to look closely at the dozens of alternative cold remedies on drugstore shelves. Should you spend your money on any of them, or just wait out the symptoms until you can breathe easy again?Of all the potential remedies, vitamin C is probably the best known--and it comes in tasty drops. But as for effectiveness, it gets an F. The C myth was started by the otherwise brilliant chemist Linus Pauling, who became convinced that large doses could stop a cold's symptoms and shorten its duration. Early studies...
  • SOUNDS FISHY

    For healthy eaters, the choice between beef and fish can seem like a no-brainer--one is linked to heart disease, and the other is linked to its prevention. Over the past decade, the pro-fish chorus has only grown louder as scientists have discovered that the omega-3 fatty acids found in many fish may ward off heart attacks, strokes and possibly cancer. And salmon, rich in omega-3s, is even promoted as a skin treatment. In light of the latest mad-cow scare, it might appear best to simply substitute fish for beef and stop worrying altogether--no threat of BSE, no heart disease, no wrinkles, no problem. But in the scientifically murky world of food safety, things are never that easy. Fish have problems of their own: their tissues can pick up pollutants from the tainted waters around them, including chemicals that may be harmful to humans, such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). And the list of risky species is growing. Last month the U.S. Food and Drug Administration...
  • Physics: We Don't Get It, Either

    With its talk of space-time and cosmic microwave backgrounds, astrophysics has a tendency to sound like sci-fi. But 2003 made it clear that the truth was stranger than even that kind of fiction. Take Science magazine's Breakthrough of the Year--the confirmation of "dark energy" and "dark matter" lurking in the vast void of space. It's a major, fundamental development in physics, the discovery of the very stuff that makes up the overwhelming majority of our universe. The kinds of ordinary particles we're all familiar with--electrons and protons and such--make up only 4 percent of known matter. The rest is either dark matter or dark energy. But there's still so little known about those exotic entities that the very concept is able to flummox even the editor who anointed it the year's biggest Big Idea. Told that a journalist had some basic questions about dark matter and energy, Science editor in chief Donald Kennedy responded, "Join the club." (In all fairness, the guy's a biologist....
  • What's Up With Tuna?

    When Elizabeth Schuler got pregnant last July, she didn't turn to the FDA for nutrition advice. Instead, she asked a real group of experts--the women at her Chicago hair salon. They told her to give up her beloved tuna or risk damaging her baby's brain. Now the government is catching up with their warnings and Schuler is relieved to be fish-free, if a bit annoyed. "It feels like I know stuff first," she says. "The FDA is always late jumping into the game."What did Schuler know that the FDA didn't? For years, the agency has told pregnant women to avoid large, fatty fish such as swordfish and king mackerel, which carry heavy loads of methylmercury--a pollutant widely believed to harm fetal brains. Tuna tend to have slightly lower mercury levels. But the FDA draft guidelines reported last week counsel women to limit tuna intake to six ounces (one meal's worth) per week if they're nursing, pregnant, or even thinking about having a baby. They also note that tuna steaks and albacore...
  • Health: Get The Shot, Not The Flu

    It sounded bad: Chiron and Aventis Pasteur, makers of the flu shot, announced last Friday that they had run through their entire stock of the vaccine. With a vicious Colorado strain having killed at least five kids--and infected 6,300 more people--the Centers for Disease Control seemed caught by surprise, and anxiety spread through the 200 million Americans who hadn't yet been immunized. But even if you haven't been vaccinated, don't panic. The good news is that Americans got flu shots in record numbers this year. And with 80 million vaccinated, "herd immunity" is up, so this year's flu may not spread easily. Those who act now can still get protected. Here's what you need to know about the outbreak.It's not too late. The shot takes two weeks to start working, so those who got immunized early were wise to do so. But you can still play catch-up--flu season runs until May. Vaccine stores aren't totally depleted yet, so call your doctor or county health department today and be...
  • Periscope

    RUSSIAThe Putin StrategyThe big question in this Sunday's parliamentary elections is not whether supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin will dominate their opponents, but what Putin will do with the victory. To push through his ambitious second-term agenda, Putin needs a strong election showing from United Russia, the party handcrafted by the Kremlin over the past four years to give him an easy legislative ride. With GDP growing around 6 percent this year, Putin pledges to make sure ordinary citizens share in the country's growing prosperity. Teachers, police and soldiers will see a pay increase, he says. There will be improvements in basic infrastructure, such as heat and running water in dirt-poor provinces. In the budget next year, Putin plans to spike an unpopular 5 percent sales tax and to create a so-called stabilization fund from windfall oil revenues.Putin's first post-Dec. 7 moves, though, will likely include some ministerial housecleaning. As the top-ranking...
  • Health: Produce Wash-Out

    It may sound like a bad B-movie sequel--"Attack of the Killer Scallions!"--but there's no better way to describe America's newest food hysteria. Mexican scallions have killed three people and infected hundreds more with hepatitis A in the Pittsburgh area, joining Guatemalan raspberries (which can carry Cyclospora germs) and Mexican cantaloupes (salmonella) in the ranks of potentially toxic raw produce. As imports have increased, so have cases of produce-borne illness, possibly because farming standards abroad are lower. But a 1999 attack of salmonella-bearing tomatoes was homegrown--so don't think that simply buying American is a guarantee of purity. Better to worry about the food when you get it home. Take Mae West's advice: peel it and remove any leaves. Always, always wash before you eat. (Food and hands, please.) And when in doubt, just cook it.
  • The Skinny On Bad Fat

    One of the great virtues of "The Trans Fat Solution," a new cookbook/health primer, is that you can read the entire thing in less time than it takes to make the Walnut-Cardamom Coffee Cake on page 41. Trans-fatty acids are a tricky topic, and so many health books confuse more than they enlighten, using jargon instead of straightforward explanation. But this is not one of those books. Author Kim Severson, a food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, has made trans-fatty foods understandable in just three short chapters--and, God bless her, she's included yummy alternatives from former Place Pigalle chef Cindy Burke.Trans fats, the synthetic molecules that appear in more than 40 percent of foods on grocery shelves as "partially hydrogenated" oils or "vegetable shortening," are a guilty pleasure for both cooks and consumers. They show up in fresh foods, making croissants flaky and pie crusts crumbly. But they're also what's keeping that decade-old Twinkie at the back of your pantry...
  • In The News: Super Statins

    Most patients who take statins to lower their cholesterol probably don't know why they're on one brand instead of another. Truth be told, neither do their doctors. Until last week, there wasn't much evidence that one brand was better than the other. But the results of a Cleveland Clinic study released last week showed that patients' average LDL levels dropped to 110 on Pravachol and an astounding 79 on Lipitor--and some doctors are now switching to Lipitor as their prescription of choice. That doesn't necessarily mean you should switch if you're on another statin, though. "A lot of the media coverage said drug A was better than drug B," says Dr. James Cleeman, coordinator of the NIH's National Cholesterol Education Program. "But you can't conclude that from this study. It wasn't a head-to-head comparison." Patients took either 40mg of Pravachol or 80mg of Lipitor (which was already known to have a stronger milligram-for-milligram effect). The Lipitor patients had lower CRP levels,...
  • Science: Mother Knows Best

    If anyone ever needed science to throw her a bone, it's the woman in this photo. She's tired, she's overworked, she's got a screaming toddler who won't be mollified. We're betting she's lucky if she gets to skim Parenting; she's probably way too busy to read Physiology and Behavior. Which is too bad, because the latest issue contains some of the best news a mom could ever hear.According to research done by Craig Kinsley at the University of Richmond, mother rats are less susceptible to stress than those who have never given birth. Recent studies have shown that they also have sharper memories and spatial skills. After motherhood, the rodent brain undergoes what Kinsley calls "dramatic alterations." As levels of estrogen and oxytocin surge, connections between neurons become more dense, and the glial support cells proliferate. Hormones may not be the only factors in play. Just being around babies may somehow encourage the brain to perk up, says Kinsley, even if "any human mother...
  • Genes: Boning Up Treatment Options

    It's hard to say which facet of osteoporosis is worse--the symptoms, or the fact that they show up only when it's too late to fully cure them. Women aren't likely to think much about a disabling disease of old age when they're too young to suffer from it; by the time they're old enough to realize it's in their near future, calcium tablets can only help so much. But the recent discovery of a gene variant that triples people's risk for the disease could help them know whether they need to prepare in advance. The gene, which in its "healthy" form stimulates the cells that produce bone tissue, was revealed Monday by the Icelandic firm deCODE Genetics, which has been on a tear lately, identifying genes involved in many of the West's most common diseases. It's almost certainly not the only culprit to cause the disease, which is probably the result of several genes interacting with the environment. But like all genes, it could be identified with simple tests--which could bring about a...
  • Genes: Boning Up On Options

    It's hard to say which facet of osteoporosis is worse--the symptoms, or the fact that they show up only when it's too late to fully cure them. Women aren't likely to think much about a disabling disease of old age when they're too young to suffer from it; by the time they're old enough to realize it's in their near future, calcium tablets can only help so much. But the recent discovery of a gene variant that triples the risk of developing the disease could help women be forewarned. The gene, which in its healthy form stimulates the cells that produce bone tissue, was revealed Monday by the Icelandic firm deCODE Genetics, which has been on a tear lately, identifying genes involved in many of the West's most common diseases. It's almost certainly not the only culprit in causing the disease, which is probably the result of several genes interacting with the carrier's environment.But like all genes, it could be identified with simple tests--which would likely bring about a major shift...
  • Health: Atkins Cheaters Beware

    Try as she did with traditional healthy eating, Adele Gubic just couldn't seem to lose weight after her third pregnancy. So when she heard about the Atkins diet two years ago, it seemed like a godsend. She bought "the books and the tapes and the cookbooks" and ordered low-carbohydrate soy products online. Sure enough, 12 pounds melted off her 156-pound frame in eight weeks. "It does come off amazingly if you do what you're supposed to do," she says.The problem was, she didn't. Two months into the regimen, Gubic, like most Atkins dieters, started having serious starch and sugar cravings. She had passed the initial "induction" phase of Atkins, which prohibits almost everything except meat, eggs and cheese. But she hadn't reached the "lifetime maintenance" phase, the ideal-weight stage that allows plenty of fruits and vegetables and even an occasional cheat. As she added more and more carbs back into her daily diet, already stuffed with meats and cheeses, it became clear she'd never...
  • Homo Sapiens: A New Answer To An Old 'Quest'-Ion

    It's a quandary that goes back to the ancient Greeks: what makes Homo sapiens unique? Plato famously thought he had the answer, arguing that humans were the world's only hairless and featherless creatures to walk on two feet. Not so, said his rival Diogenes, brandishing a plucked chicken. And so the debate went on for the next 2,350 years, with more answers (culture! language! math!) tossed up and batted just as quickly out of the arena.It continues today, which is why we have "Quest: The Essence of Humanity," an excellent new book in which biochemist Charles Pasternak plays Plato. He begins by recounting the four traits most anthropologists point to as distinctly "human": bipedalism, agile hands, sophisticated vocal cords and big brains. But they aren't enough alone; each has a proverbial plucked chicken of its own among the animal kingdom. The crucial difference, Pasternak argues, is how we've used those gifts in the service of our curiosity--and how they've helped us conquer the...
  • Ask Tip Sheet

    Why does scratching stop an itch? --Wilbur Seymour, Sandia Park, N.M.Like many questions Ask Tip Sheet receives, this one's been puzzling scientists for years. Not much is known about itching, but it likely evolved as a defense mechanism, alerting the nerves to possible harm. When an irritant touches your skin, nearby nerves send a signal racing to your cerebral cortex. The same nerves transmit pain. By scratching (i.e., causing yourself mild pain), you distract them from the itch. By the time the pain subsides, the irritant is usually gone--unless it's something like a bug bite, which is why scratching those only works for a minute or two.
  • Memory And Sleep: Forget All-Nighters

    Like many students, Kimberly Fenn has pulled more than a few all-nighters, cramming facts into her head for the next day's exam, fighting exhaustion and gravity to keep her eyelids from closing. Her parents always told her she'd be better off with a good night's sleep. But it was only this past year, as a psychology graduate student at the University of Chicago, that Fenn learned how true that was. She tested two groups of undergraduates on their ability to learn a gibberish language. One group (the crammers) had to take a test on the same day as their training, while another group (the sleepers) were allowed a night's rest. The results were startling. The sleepers scored higher than the crammers, "like going from F's to C's," says Howard Nusbaum, Fenn's adviser and a coauthor of the study.The findings do more than merely confirm what we (or at least our moms) already knew. They suggest that the link between sleep and the brain's higher mental processes is far stronger than...
  • Medicine: Whoops--Get The Shot

    It's been more than four decades since doctors introduced a vaccine for whooping cough, a disease so archaic it even sounds old. So why is it suddenly on the rise nationwide? The latest outbreak hit New York last month. The culprits: parents who didn't get their kids shots. "We're victims of our own success," says Kathy Edwards, who helped develop the vaccine. "Every time we let our guard down, the disease comes back." The vaccine isn't linked to autism, and there's no good reason not to get it. But it's only 90 percent effective, so even vaccinated kids can get sick. Adults can come down with mild whooping cough, and babies under 7 months, who aren't fully immune, often contract it from unvaccinated siblings. An adolescent version of the shot may hit the market next year. For now, make sure your family is up to date--and see your doctor if it's a problem in your area.
  • Wmd: They're History

    Investigators have found evidence of biological weapons in Iraq, NEWSWEEK has learned. The discovery was made south of Mosul, in the ruins of a desert fortress at Hatra. And the weapons are... not what you think. They're clay pots once filled with scorpions and dropped on the heads of invaders by the citizens of Hatra at the turn of the third century. That era's siege of Hatra by the Romans lasted just 20 days before the enemy turned tail. "It was the brute effectiveness of Hatra's defensive biological and chemical weapons that overcame Roman morale, manpower and siege machines," writes classical folklorist Adrienne Mayor. "The terror effect would be quite impressive."Who knew Saddam Hussein had such a legacy to live up to? Mayor's new book, "Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World"--which she says was prompted in part by 9/11 and the anthrax scare--offers a comprehensive look at WMD's antecedents, from flamethrowers of the...
  • Strokes: New Risk Factor

    Iceland's deCODE Genetics has attracted controversy since its July 2000 IPO, when bioethicists came out swinging, accusing the firm of invading people's privacy. DeCODE wasn't trying hard enough to get people's consent before using their medical data to search for the genetic roots of disease, the ethicists claimed. Three years later, the firm's methods may still seem shady--but no one can deny they work. DeCODE has found 15 genes implicated in 12 diseases, including last week's "stroke gene." The harmful form of the gene, which may cause plaque buildup in the arteries, is as much of a risk factor as smoking, hypertension and high cholesterol. Drugs to counter the gene are years away, and there's currently no way of knowing which form you have. But deCODE CEO Kari Stefansson says a screening test could be ready in a year or two. Our advice: think what you will of deCODE's strategy, but don't ignore the benefits.CORRECTION ...