Sharon Begley

Stories by Sharon Begley

  • 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?...
  • The Math of March Madness

    With the opening round of March Madness (a.k.a. the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament) getting underway Thursday, the mathematicians are out in force. If you’re still looking for additional help with your bracketology, Lab Notes is here to help....
  • It's Good to Be on the 17th Floor

    With a record number of Americans now saying that press accounts of the impact of global warming are exaggerated—41 percent say that, according to a Gallup poll released last week—I can easily imagine the reaction to this study, but here goes anyway: sea level due to global warming will be almost twice as great along the northeastern U.S. coast as it is globally. As always, it’s not merely the average level of sea-level rise that’s the problem, but the synergistic effect of sea-level rise with hurricanes and winter storm surges. When winds hurl water onto coasts from a higher starting point, the damage is that much greater....
  • Hello Botox, Bye-Bye Anger?

    Have you ever had the experience of smiling to be sociable at a party, even though you don’t feel especially chipper, and finding that the smile actually makes you feel happier? Or of making a frown, perhaps when you’re in a meeting where layoffs are announced (even though your job is safe), to show that you are in sync with others, and even though you did not feel angry before you frowned the facial expression makes you feel mad? The phenomenon was first noticed by Charles Darwin, giving rise to his “facial feedback hypothesis”—but Darwin didn’t know anyone who’d had Botox....
  • One Fish, Two Fish, Be Careful Not to Rue Fish

    It’s always been a mystery to me why the fishing industry equates “some fish have mercury, so avoid high-mercury fish” with “don’t eat any fish at all,!” Yet it does, arguing that those irresponsible scientists who issue warnings about mercury in fish will make people miss out on the heart and (for fetuses) cognitive benefits of fish....
  • 1 Chimp + Many Rocks = Duck!

    Whenever a study claims a “first”—as in the first evidence for this or that phenomenon—my suspicious side emerges. A fascinating paper in the March 9 issue of Current Biology describes what it calls the first unambiguous evidence that a non-human animal (in this case, a male chimpanzee who lives in Sweden’s Furuvik Zoo) can plan for future contingencies: for the last 11 years Santino, who is 30, has been regularly collecting stones from his enclosure in the early morning hours before the zoo opened, stockpiling them in groups of three to eight, and then hurling them at visitors later in the day....
  • Too Much Carbon Dioxide? Suck It

    There are all sorts of ways to get a sense of when an idea’s time has come, but I recommend looking at how many conferences are devoted to it. By that measure, carbon capture and sequestration is ready for its close-up. I just got back from a conference on this, and was struck by how little the message had changed since I began writing about it in 2003 (such as here, here and here)....
  • Antibiotics for Colds, and Other Tales from the Trenches

    Among the many, many (really many) doctors who have written in to berate me for my column in this week’s magazine claiming that “doctors hate science” (which was shorthand and headline-speak for “why doctors are so reluctant to embrace evidence-based medicine and comparative-effectiveness research”), quite a few made a crucial point. Doctors may be paragons when it comes to using only treatments that have been proved to work. Patients are a whole ‘nother story....
  • Hubble: The People Have Spoken

    I hope Lab Notes readers got their votes in. As I blogged last month, NASA had invited people to weigh in on what additional target the Hubble Space Telescope should photograph during the International Year of Astronomy's “100 Hours of Astronomy,” taking place April 2 to 5. The winner is (sorry, planetary nebulae, spiral galaxy, star-forming region and edge-on galaxy): a pair of interacting galaxies.   Out of the 139,944 votes cast online since January 28, nearly 50 percent went to the interacting pair of spiral galaxies called Arp 274. (To find it yourself--or at least the general neighborhood, go here) It’s a good choice, since interacting galaxies “weave elegant twisted lanes of dust and stars, and brilliant blue clusters of newborn stars,” a NASA announcement says.   We’ll see what Hubble comes up with next month.
  • Extreme Makeover, Mongol Hordes Edition

    If work or play takes you to Houston between now and September 7, check out the Genghis Khan exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural History and you’ll never again equate the conquering Mongol with “barbarian.”...
  • Vaccines and Autism: The Unending Story

    When I was reporting the story on vaccines and autism for the current issue of the magazine, everyone warned me that despite a sweeping decision by the “vaccine court” that neither thimerosal nor the MMR vaccine cause autism, the belief that either or both do was not going to fade away. Hard on the heels of that February 12 decision by the court, another case—decided in July 2007 but being released only now—went in favor of parents who believe the MMR vaccine caused their son’s Pervasive Developmental Delay (of which autism is one form)....