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.   A study of a treatment for tinnitus therefore caught my eye.

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).

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.

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.   You may remember the sightings of a UFO over Morristown, N.J., in January, which was blogged about and even captured on video that has been posted to YouTube as clips from TV broadcasts and an amateur astronomer.

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.

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.

'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).

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.

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.

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?

Parents Matter, Redux

The idea that "parents don't matter"—shorthand for the view that how parents treat their children has no effect on the kids' behavior, values, achievements and other outcomes—just won't go away.

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.   Among the more interesting picks is the computer ranking system devised by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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.

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?

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.

Tuna Industry 1, Science 0

Devoted as I am to my job, I think I would draw the line at eating one can of albacore tuna day for 20 days, as reporter Sue Kwon of San Francisco's KPIX did for a report broadcast last week.

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...

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.

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.

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.

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."   The "conquering" part is definitely an understatement.

Old Age, Old Brain? Maybe Not

There is more than enough evidence that physical exercise is good for the brain, bringing benefits like lower cholesterol and blood pressure, but here's more: it can increase the size of your hippocampus, the structure responsible for the formation and storage of new memories as well as for spatial navigation--finding your way around.

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.

Mom, Dad, DNA and Suicide

It was only in 2004 that scientists led by Michael Meaney of McGill University reported an intriguing study in which the on-off switches on the DNA of baby rats were set by their mother's behavior.