Sharon Begley

Stories by Sharon Begley

  • Botox Warning

    When I wrote a year ago about surprising new evidence that Botox and other drugs containing the neurotoxin botulinum could travel from the site of injection to the brain, it wasn't clear whether this posed a threat to patients (the study I described was done on lab animals). But yesterday the Food and Drug Administration announced that the risk was all too real: it will now require Botox, Myobloc and the other botulinum drugs to carry a black box warning—the strongest there is—alerting doctors and patients that the drug can spread to distant parts of the body, posing serious risks such as trouble breathing and swallowing. The FDA is also requiring manufacturers to send doctors a letter warning of the risk....
  • Brain Scan Update: 'Our Aim Was to Educate, Not Accuse'

    In a post earlier this week on a study raising doubts about some high-profile studies in neuroscience, I was remiss in implying that the problem existed only in fMRI studies. As the paper’s lead author, Niko Kriegeskorte, reminds me, “this is not only about brain imaging (as your title suggests), but equally affects other fields of systems neuroscience,” including EEGs....
  • Googling the Flu

    Official reports of swine flu cases always lag behind actual cases....
  • The Problem With Drug Clinical Trials

    It’s bad enough when a medication for asthma, hypertension or anything else doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. Even more exasperating is knowing that the way the system of drug discovery and testing is set up, it’s practically guaranteed to produce medications that will not help a lot of the people they’re aimed at....
  • Brain Imaging and (More) Voodoo, But Politer

    Even when you’re skewering an entire field of science, the better part of valor might be to use terms such as “circular analysis” rather than, say, “voodoo.”...
  • Smackdown! EPA, FDA and Mercury in Fish

    It isn’t every day that one federal agency says the work of another has such “serious scientific flaws” that the work is “not a product [we] should endorse as it does not reach the level of scientific rigor.” Nor is it every day that federal agency #1 (as we’ll call it) says that while federal agency #2 may have tried to get its act together in response to earlier criticism, the work is “essentially unchanged, and . . . [still] scientifically flawed.”...
  • The Blob That Didn't Eat the Universe

    It’s hard to resist an astronomy discovery when it’s called a blob, even if the precise name is the Lyman-Alpha blob. In a paper being published this afternoon in Astrophysical Journal, astronomers are announcing that they spied such an object—thought to be an enormous body of gas that may be the precursor to a galaxy—dating from when the universe was a mere 800 million years old. Stretching for 55,000 light years (approximately the radius of our Milky Way galaxy’s disk), this Lyman-Alpha blob has astronomers scratching their heads....
  • Sports Drinks: No Swallowing Necessary

    There’s all sorts of mumbo-jumbo about how sports drinks boost athletes’ performance, especially in endurance events such as yesterday’s Boston Marathon. But according to an intriguing new study, it isn’t the sports drinks’ calories (athletes benefit even if they spit out the drink rather than swallow it) or their sweet taste (drinks with artificial sweeteners do not boost performance). Instead, suggest Ed Chambers of the University of Birmingham and colleagues in a paper in The Journal of Physiology, carbohydrates in the drinks fit into receptors in the mouth that in turn activate the brain’s pleasure and reward centers, spurring athletes to push themselves harder without realizing how hard they're working....
  • A Tweeting Brain

    For patients suffering from locked-in syndrome, in which they are completely paralyzed and able to do no more than blink their eyes, the greatest hope is not walking, not feeding themselves, not anything else having to do with moving: it is communicating. (An episode of House last month did a good job of depicting the horror of locked-in syndrome, which can be caused by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease, brain-stem stroke or high spinal cord injury.) Hence the intense research effort to build brain-computer interfaces (BCI) for such patients. As a 2007 publication from the National Institutes of Health described a BCI system being developed there, “eight electrodes hitched to the computer . . . record the user’s electrical brain waves, which the computer analyzes and translates into specific commands, such as writing emails, selecting computer icons, or moving robotic devices. No surgery is required and users typically master the system within an hour or two.”...
  • Kids, Genes and Daycare

    You can always count on studies of daycare to scare the living daylights out of parents, especially when they find that the more hours kids spend in daycare the more likely they are to be aggressive (a conclusion that, critics said, reflected shortcomings in the study) and that poor-quality daycare can hinder kids’ cognitive development, as the original report of a long-running study and a more user-friendly write-up both note....
  • Here Comes the . . . Oops: Make That, 'There Goes the Sun'

    There is no clearer evidence of how controversial geo-engineering (altering the atmosphere so as to reduce global warming, perhaps by lofting a haze of sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere to reduce incoming sunlight) is than the tempest stirred up when White House science adviser John Holdren told the Associated Press that the administration was discussing it. To lots of people concerned about global warming, merely mentioning geo-engineering detracts from the urgency to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, conveying a message of, “oh, no problem; we can keep making this mess but deploy a techno-fix when we need to.” But let’s leave politics aside for a nanosecond. The risk of geo-engineering is, to put it bluntly, that we’re not smart enough to know what climate effects it will produce....
  • 20% Chance of Rain, 100% Chance of Innumeracy

    It’s long been a puzzle to me why so many of my fellow commuters carry umbrellas when the weather forecast has called for, say, a 20 percent chance of rain. Me, I figure the odds are 4-to-1 in my favor. I assumed that other people are risk-averse—that is, even a small chance of getting drenched is worth the cost of carrying an umbrella. But a new study suggests something else is afoot: many people have no idea what “20 percent chance of rain” actually means....
  • R.I.P.: John Maddox

    Literary agent and Edge impresario John Brockman is reporting that John Maddox, long-time editor of the journal Nature, died Monday night at the age of 93. Maddox, who trained as a physicist, edited Nature for 23 years, making the publication arguably (well, I would argue) the best scientific journal in the world. Brockman has a nice Q&A with Maddox from 1997, in which Maddox is his usual irascible self....
  • God and Mental Health

    With two seders behind us, Good Friday upon us and Easter two days away, let us sing the praises of religion for its power to improve mental health (pace, Hitchens and Dawkins). Yes, “religion features in a lot of psychotic delusions,” as British medical writer Tom Rees notes in his blog Epiphenom. But as two new studies show, religion can also improve mental health--but only if you believe in the right god....
  • Bookshelf: Supersense

    When I was working on a 2007 column and then a longer story last year about why people believe in paranormal and supernatural phenomena, one of the most insightful scientists I spoke to was psychology researcher Bruce Hood of Britain’s University of Bristol. As he does in his blog, he explained that believing in ghosts, ESP, telepathy or even that you can tell when someone is looking at you from behind is not a matter of religion or culture, but instead reflects the normal workings of the brain....
  • Quieting That Ringing In the Ears

    Full confession: I’m a sucker for examples of how sensory input changes the brain. And if the changes alleviate a problem that can range from annoying to devastating, extra points....
  • Itchy and Scratchy

    There are as many explanations for why scratching relieves itchiness as there are causes of itching, with some of the favorites being that scratching releases painkilling endorphins or distributes itch-causing histamines so the high local concentration is diffused. (A New Yorker article last year explored the world of itching and scratching so thoroughly you’ll need calamine lotion after reading it). But a new paper in Nature Neuroscience makes a good case for a dark horse explanation: scratching decreases activity in some spinal cord neurons that transmit the itch sensation to the brain....
  • Will a Mammogram Save Your Life?

    Although colleagues have from time to time wondered if I’m a witch (this started when I wrote a column saying the full moon is not associated with weird stuff, and then a few days later the 2004 Asian tsunami hit—during a full moon), I am definitely not psychic. So when I wrote the column in the current issue on screening for cancer, and the limitations of early cancer detection, I did not know that a study would appear yesterday evening with the enticing title, “What is the point: will screening mammography save my life?”...
  • The Great UFO Hoax of 2009

    If you prefer to keep a little magic in your life—by which I mean believing in the possibility of UFOs—then read no further. For I am going to tell you about the latest UFO hoax....
  • Cancer Screening: Another View

    As you might expect, my column pointing out the limits of cancer screening and early detection was not universally greeted with hosannas. Many people cling fiercely to the notion that screening will save their lives. When I wrote the column, I wasn't aware of a smart blog post  from March 18 by the American Cancer Society's "Dr. Len"--J. Leonard Lichtenfeld--who does a terrific job analyzing the two recent prostate-cancer-screening studies that were so disappointing....
  • Rx for Poor Vision: Video Games

    The idea that experience alters the adult brain in fundamental ways has finally become accepted, so the battle lines have formed around which aspects of brain function are too basic, too hard wired, for experience to change them. Whenever someone asserts that one or another function is fixed and beyond the reach of experience, I refer them to a study finding that the visual cortex—which you’d think is as hard-wired as hard-wired can be—can adapt to an environment of visual deprivation and segue into processing tactile and auditory sensations, as scientists reported last year....
  • 'Early' Detection of Cancer Needs to Be Even Earlier

    I’ve spent the last few days talking to cancer researchers about why early detection doesn’t reduce mortality from this disease much or at all, as recent studies of the PSA test for prostate cancer concluded (the New England Journal of Medicine has made the two papers available here and here). That conclusion, sadly, has been a frequent refrain, as I’ll discuss in next week’s magazine column....
  • Genes and Second-Hand Smoke

    If you’re one of those people who read about the toxic effects of environmental pollutants or diet and say, bulls***: I know lots of people who breathed or drank or ate that so-called pollutant and are just fine, then toxicogenomics is for you. This young field examines interactions between genes and environment, identifying DNA variants that make one person develop asthma from air pollutants while another breathes free, for instance, or that make one person develop cancer from cigarettes while another smokes three packs a day for 70 years with nary a shadow on his lung x-ray. For a sense of what the field is doing, check out the “environmental genetics” group at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (the site has a link to publications)....
  • Cold Fusion at 20: Hope Springs Eternal

    For those of you with memories that go back to 1989, the news that cold fusion has not slinked off into the abyss might come as a bit of a surprise. After all, the claim 20 years ago that atomic nuclei could be induced to fuse at room temperatures (rather than the temperature of the Sun, as happens in fusion reactors) and to emit measurable quantities of heat was shown to be based on poor measurements, nonexistent controls and nutty theory. But off in the dim, dark corners of physics, the field—since renamed “low energy nuclear reactions”—continues apace, albeit without quite shaking the stigma attached to the original claims, especially now that the world’s need for carbon-free energy sources has become even more desperate than it was 20 years ago....
  • Music Hath Charms . . . Universally

    If you play the Village People’s YMCA to natives of Borneo, will they feel energized and upbeat? If you play a dirge for people from deepest Amazonia, will they feel blue? If you play the thumping beat that announces the arrival of the killer in a slasher movie, will someone who has never heard it before feel scared?...