Sharon Begley

Stories by Sharon Begley

  • Harbingers of Autism

    The tragedy of autism is compounded by one fact that makes desperate parents wish they could turn back the hands of time: symptoms of the neurodevelopmental disorder typically show up when a child is 2 or 3 or even older, but by then it may be too late to prevent or reverse whatever glitches in brain development (still pretty much a mystery) underlie the disease. It is even on the late side for getting a child the behavioral interventions and special education that might mitigate some of the worst symptoms....
  • Given a Choice, Get Anything Other Than Lung Cancer

    It’s no secret that oncologists and cancer researchers have made pitifully little progress against lung cancer, even compared to the less-than-stellar progress against other cancers, as I explained in a recent story. But as the Lung Cancer Alliance, a patient-advocacy group, details in its annual report card—filled with F’s—the news is so grim that it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that we need a whole new approach to this tragic disease....
  • Now It's Serious: As the World Warms, Lemmings Take a Hit

    Sure, effects of global warming such as more-intense hurricanes and exacerbated drought/flood cycles are no picnic, but now things are getting really dire: as the world, especially the top of the world, warms, the periodic explosion and crash of lemming populations is history....
  • Begley: Bring On the ‘Reality- Based Community’

    It took a while to discern the guiding ideology behind the Bush administration's poisonous science policies. The real problem wasn't tax cuts and war spending, even though the combination did strangle domestic programs so severely that scientists at the nation's premier physics lab were ordered to take unpaid leave, and the government is allocating 13 percent less to biomedical research in 2009 than it did in 2004. Nor was the culprit the sop that Bush offered the religious right in 2001 by banning the use of federal money for research on new lines of human embryonic stem cells, paralyzing the field for eight years and sending some of the nation's most promising young biologists overseas. It wasn't even Bush's refusal to take any action to reduce greenhouse gases, allowing U.S. emissions to grow by 178 million tons during his years in the White House and making the needed cuts that much deeper now. No, Obama and Congress can reverse all of that if they want to. The truly poisonous...
  • The Accidental Stem-Cell Advocate

    The debate over research on embryonic stem cells can seem pretty abstract, so if you want to get a real feel for the effect of President Bush’s ban on the use of federal money for studies of new stem-cell lines see if you can catch a screening of a documentary called The Accidental Advocate. It was produced and directed by Jessica Gerstle, who was an Emmy Award-winning journalist at Dateline NBC for 12 years and who is—more relevantly—the daughter of Dr. Claude Gerstle, an ophthalmologist who was paralyzed from the neck down after a bicycle accident that, as he says wonderingly in the film, left him with nary a broken bone nor a scratch on his helmet. "Merely" a quadriplegic....
  • Election 2008: How Much Do Looks Count?

    Say what you will about Sarah Palin’s experience, competence and views on (to pick just two of Lab Notes' favorites) creationism and climate change, give her this: she's got that whole beauty queen thing going for her. Roll your eyes if you must, but in a finding that will further depress anyone who still thinks that voters are rational scientists, for female pols, looks really, really matter. ...
  • Surprise: Scientists for Obama

    Let's not kid ourselves: an endorsement by scientists is unlikely to sway many voters next week. But the decision by 76 American Nobel laureates—including all three of the Americans who won one of the science prizes this year—is notable for one thing: if you think ordinary Americans believe the last eight years have been a nightmare, you should see how scientists feel. As documented over and over, especially by Rep. Henry Waxman’s House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the politicization of science by this administration has set records. Scientists are furious and can’t wait for it to end....
  • Found? King Solomon's Mines

    King Solomon, who assumed the throne of the kingdom of Israel after the death of his father King David,...
  • 'Out!' Called the Ref. Challenge?

    Memo to tennis players: because of the way the human visual system works, referees are more likely to call “out” a ball that actually lands in, rather than call “in” a ball that in fact lands outside the line. Now that professional players are permitted to challenge calls, therefore, they would do well to focus on balls that are called “out,” since they are more likely to be wrong....
  • Race and Health--or Not

    In our gene-obsessed society, whenever one group differs from another on some measure of health, laypeople as well as experts reflexively leap to a genetic explanation. Higher rates of hypertension among African-Americans than Caucasian Americans? It must be their genes. That assumption is behind race-based medicine, too—the idea that different medications will work better for people of different races....
  • Animals. Acupuncture. Huh?

    As coincidence would have it, I finished reading the terrific new book, “Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science,” by physicist Robert Park, on the very morning that I came across a story about using acupuncture in animals. The coincidence is this: among the fascinating debunking that Park engages in (intercessory prayer, homeopathy, ESP . . . ) is the obligatory chapter on acupuncture, which has been shown to be effective for such things as relieving lower-back pain and headaches. Acupuncture works, Park explains, because it triggers the placebo effect: patients believe in it, and that belief releases endogenous opioids, among other effects....
  • What Am I Bid for This Nice Ivory?

    As of a few minutes ago, you could buy a lovely carving made of African-elephant ivory on eBay for $1,100, an ivory mermaid for $300, an ivory napkin ring for $99 and more: all of the ivory is described as “pre-ban,” meaning it was “harvested” (such a benign word for ripping tusks out of slaughtered elephants) before the international community banned the sale of elephant ivory in 1989. It’s illegal to sell any ivory harvested after that, and illegal to sell any ivory, pre-ban or not, internationally. As for whether the "pre-ban" claims are all accurate, well, if you believe that perhaps I can interest you in a nice bridge we have here in New York....
  • Help Mouse with Lou Gehrig's Disease. Win $1 Million.

    Add another group to the growing list of those who realize that if we wait around for the current way of doing biomedical science to produce cures for disease, those cures will forever be “10 years off,” as researchers in cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and just about everything else have assured me (and everyone else) for years and years. ...
  • Solar and Wind Energy in a World of $70-a-Barrel Oil: RIP?

    When oil was $147 a barrel and money was sloshing through the financial system like water, renewable energy seemed like a slam dunk: wind and solar projects attracted bank loans and private-equity money, and the higher cost of generating electricity from green sources compared to fossil fuels seemed like it might soon be a thing of the past....
  • How Is the Arctic Like the Wicked Witch of the West?*

    It wouldn’t be early autumn without the annual “Arctic report card,” which tracks recent changes at the top of the planet. Produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the U.S. Commerce Department, this year’s report card documents a continued decrease in the extent of summer sea ice, which experts call “a dramatic illustration of the pronounced impact increased global temperatures are having on the Arctic regions.” The scientists also found autumn temperatures  “a record 5º C above normal, due to the major loss of sea ice in recent years which allows more solar heating of the ocean. Winter and springtime temperatures remain relatively warm over the entire Arctic, in contrast to the 20th century and consistent with an emerging global warming influence.” Sea-ice retreat is associated with warmer temps because dark, liquid water absorbs more solar energy than white ice does; that warming of the ocean affects land and atmosphere temps as well as marine life,...
  • Stem Cells: Blindness, Yes; Parkinson's, Probably Not

    I spent yesterday afternoon and evening at the annual meeting of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, at Rockefeller University, where the organizers were firm taskmasters: the scientists presenting studies had to focus not on esoterica but on translational research—that is, the kind that promises to help patients....
  • Tuberculosis: The Cow Didn't Do It

    The animals that humans share the planet with are and have been reservoirs for all sorts of nasty diseases (deer ticks and Lyme disease; mosquitoes and malaria; Ebola and lord-knows-what wildlife reservoir), but here’s one case where the beasts were accused unjustly. It had long been thought that humans contracted tuberculosis, which currently infects an estimated 2 billion of us, from cattle. But in a clever new study, scientists conclude that humans got it first, and only later did the pathogen Mycobacterium tuberculosis mutate and jump into cows....
  • Why Negative Ads Are Good for Voters

    Attack ads are ubiquitous this campaign season, but they are not the threat to the electoral process that do-gooders claim.
  • Nobel Predictions: Score!

    Score one for the crystal-ball gazers at Thomson Reuters Scientific! As I blogged last week, every year the editors and researchers there forecast the Nobel Prize winners, and although they struck out on physics and medicine they nailed chemistry: Roger Tsien of UC San Diego shares this year’s chem Nobel with Osamu Shimomura of the Marine Biological Lab and Martin Chalfie of Columbia University for discovering and developing green fluorescent protein....
  • The Deadly Dozen

    If you look on the bright side, when you think of the health effects of climate change you probably think of fewer sub-zero spells and, therefore, fewer cold-related illnesses and deaths. Maybe. But in a warmer world, as I wrote last year, poison ivy and ragweed will get more prevalent and more toxic, and tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever will reach toward the poles. Those, it turns out, are only the tip of the (melting) iceberg....
  • Don't Believe What You Read, Redux

    In 2005, John P. A. Ioannidis of Greece’s University of Ioannina School of Medicine and Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston shook up the world of science with his provocatively-titled, and frighteningly-well reasoned, paper, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” in PLoS Medicine. Now he’s back, no more sanguine about the state of biomedical science. Bottom line: when it comes to “the latest studies,” take what you read with a grain of salt....
  • Feeling Powerless? Do I Have a Conspiracy Theory for You

    Control freaks have a bad name, but they shouldn’t. When you feel you have some control over your work, you feel less stress even when the actual task is identical to when someone is standing over you ordering you to finish; when you can control, or even when you just believe (incorrectly) that you can control the duration of painful shocks, they don’t hurt as much. Even when control is out of the question, just knowing what’s in store can be beneficial: when you learn details about colonoscopy, your anxiety drops and you will likely recover more quickly, as a 1999 study in The Lancet showed....
  • Urban Black Bears: Live Fast, Die Young

    If it pains you to see a wild animal like these black bear cubs in a dumpster, think how they feel—especially since bears lured to urban areas by the availability of garbage die at such high rates that not even getting fat on human detritus and reproducing while still teenagers (in human years) can compensate for their higher mortality, according to the first study of overall impact of urban areas on black bears.   It has long been known that garbage attracts bears and causes them to ditch their natural diet; who wants to scrounge for berries when there’s half a Big Mac in someone’s uncovered garbage can? But Jon P. Beckman of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Carl W. Lacey of the Nevada Department of Wildlife went further. They followed 22 female black bears—12 in an urban environment and 10 in wildland habitats—from 1997 to 2006 in the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains, including around Carson City and Lake Tahoe, to assess the impact of people and their garbage over the bear...
  • Fat Baby Girls and Breast Cancer

    We all know two things that affect our health as adults: how we live our lives (diet, exercise, stress reduction, exposure to toxic compounds and the like) and the genetic endowment we got from our parents (genes that raise the risk of cancer, for instance). But over the last few years scientists have begun to recognize a third factor: conditions in the womb during our nine months of gestation....