The bewildering curse of face blindness

You have trouble remembering a name? Imagine being unable even to remember a face.

Oliver Sacks, the remarkable physician/writer/author/professor of neurology — what does he do in his spare time? — wrote a long and fascinating article in a recent (August 30) New Yorker in which he details a lifelong affliction with face blindness, officially known as prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces. What Sacks doesn’t do in his spare time is socialize comfortably. It’s hard to be comfortable when you might walk right past your best friend. (Or greet a perfect stranger you think is your next-door neighbor.)

I had made it through seven decades (Sacks and I happen to be the same age, but that’s about where the similarities end) without ever hearing of face blindness. Then one day renowned artist Chuck Close turned up on PBS NewsHour, discussing a new biography. At some point in the program Close mentioned that he was face blind. Come on, I said to myself and the TV screen. A creative genius known worldwide for, among other things, his remarkable portraits and he doesn’t know faces? Close went on to talk of how he works from photographs, largely because once he reduces a face to two dimensions he can commit the image to memory.

Sacks theorizes that the “flattening” allows Close to memorize certain features. “Although I myself am unable to recognize a particular face,” Sacks writes, “I can recognize various things about a face: that there is a large nose, a pointed chin, tufted eyebrows, or protruding ears.” But he is better at recognizing people by the way they move, their “motor style.” He is “reasonably good at judging age and gender, though I have made a few embarrassing blunders.”

Sacks writes that he avoids parties, conferences and large gatherings as much as possible in order not to have the inevitable embarrassment it brings. Consideration of how difficult it has to be to negotiate through life with such a problem makes the common complaint of, say, blanking on an old friend’s name (and don’t we all!) so trivial as to be embarrassing itself.

Sacks cites the work of research scientist Ken Nakayama, who “is doing so much to promote the scientific understanding of prosopagnosia.” Nakayama heads the Prosopagnosia Research Center at Harvard, on whose Web site one can learn about symptoms, causes, history and where the name came from (the Greek word for face: prosopon.) You can also find, on the site, tests and questionnaires to assess your own face recognition. Sacks is particularly appreciative of a notice posted on Nakayama’s own site which reads: “Recent eye problems and mild prosopagnosia have made it harder for me to recognize people I should know. Please help by giving your name if we meet. Many thanks.”

A very small gesture, for those who take face recognition for granted.

Do We REALLY Want to Live Forever?

Is immortality just around the corner?

Say you could live, maybe not forever, but to 150 or so; would you exercise that option? The immortalists, notably including British biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, unquestionably would. Immortalist thinking is that we should be “conquering death” (by rearranging genomes and other scientific maneuvers) so we can set about living into infinity. De Grey’s goal is to develop a “cure” for human aging.

Immortalism — OK, it’s not in the dictionary, but may be there any day now — the notion that humans should be able to live forever, has been around for a while itself. In the late 1920s, after an “otherworldly experience in the Utah desert,” aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh enlisted Nobel laureate scientist Alexis Carrel in an immortality project that never went much of anywhere. And that was fortunate, since it had more than a smattering of facism and anti-semitism. Several years ago, David Freidman wrote about that project in The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever.

And now comes another daring quest. It’s led by super-scientist de Grey and is detailed in another, new book by Jonathan Weiner, Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality. No offense to Jonathan Weiner, who is a remarkably gifted writer with one Pulitzer Prize and a great deal more literary honors more than this writer, but I think I’ll pass on Long for This World. I did read a fine review of it by Abraham Verghese in the New York Times Book Review of August 1 (and was pleased to have my letter about it published a couple of weeks later.) Verghese pointed out that the Immortalists miss the point: “that simply living a full life span is a laudable goal,” and that we could end up “simply extend(ing) the years of infirmity and suffering.”

There’s also a finite amount of space on the planet, and just now we’re not doing a great job of sharing that space. This small piece of cyberspace believes the quest for better life — say, health and wellbeing — might make more sense than the attempt to “conquer death.”

Cellphones, antennas, towers… radiation happens

cellphone antenna pole in Wimsheim, Germany
Image via Wikipedia

Radiation from the A-bomb test witnessed by my then-Marine husband in the early 1950s was registered on a small badge worn around his neck. They double-timed from foxholes toward the site of the blast. As far as we and the U.S. government know, all of those guys went on to lead long and healthy lives — and we went on to deadlier bombs anyway. We do now know a little more about those sorts of radiation damage.

We don’t know much about the tiny emissions from cellphones, iPhones, cellular antennas, texters, Skypers, whatever. The suggestion that any of those cyber-issues could possibly cause harm draws scoffs and derision and denials, but the truth is we simply don’t know. Some folks would still like to find out; maybe even find out before harm is done rather than after. An ongoing mini-battle in San Francisco is typical of such citizen struggles everywhere:

The increasing popularity of smart phones is pitting companies looking to expand their coverage against city residents concerned about the dangers presented by a growing number of cellular antennas.

Nearly every week, the city Planning Commission hears from a company looking to add to the thousands of cellular antennas already in the city. And, like clockwork, local residents turn out to fight the plans.

“These towers should be away from residences, away from schools and away from other vulnerable populations,” said Doug Loranger, who, as founder of the San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union, has been fighting the cellular companies for a decade.

That’s not easy to do in a city as densely packed as San Francisco, where hills and tall buildings have long made radio transmission a challenge.

The crowds that jammed local stores looking to buy the new Apple iPhones last month demonstrate another part of the problem. San Francisco has a reputation as one of the most tech-savvy cities in the country, and the people buying the various new smart phones want fast and easy access to the Internet on their handheld devices, which means more demand for service.

This demand for service drives the rush to install more antennas and modify the existing ones. As long as they meet emission standards set in 1996, they are deemed fine, and cannot be challenged on the basis of health, a frustrating reality for potential challengers. Because that actually is the issue: whether — or at what point — emissions can indeed become damaging to one’s health. And though radiofrequency radiation emitted by the antennas has not been proven to have any damaging effects, activist Beverly Choe, whose children attend school near one such installation says, “it doesn’t seem prudent to add more radiation until we’re sure of the effects.”

“People want service where they live, where they work and where they play,” said Rod De La Rosa, a spokesman for T-Mobile. “We’re trying to roll out more high-speed data transmission by increasing the size of the pipe and not just for voice.”

T-Mobile is just one of the service providers looking to boost their presence in San Francisco. Just last week, Clearwire, a new company providing wireless data service only, came to the Planning Commission with requests to add antennas to existing sites in Bernal Heights and by San Francisco General Hospital.

“Starting last year, we’ve had a big increase in requests for modifications (of existing sites) and for new antennas,” said Jonas Ionin, who oversees cellular antenna requests for the city’s Planning Commission. “What we’re finding today is that the increases aren’t necessarily based on voice traffic, but on data downloads.”

The city already is home to 709 cell sites, some with as many as 12 separate antennas. Although many of the recent requests have been for upgrades and additions to those existing sites, there is also a growing call for new spots for cellular antennas, which means more battles to come.

Those continuing battles have one interesting aspect that other battles can’t always claim. No one is waiting to find out who’s right. “The funny thing is that people call me on their cell phones to complain about the new installations,” said Diego Sanchez, a city planner. We may all be addle-brained from telecommunicating before we find out where it’s coming from. A lot of us grew up in asbestos-infused schools and homes, and we’re probably all eating mercury-infused seafood (not to mention drinking petroleum-infused water); life is hazardous to one’s health.

Tension over cellular antennas mounts in city.

Live longer, healthier: prospects ahead

More news just in on the health and longevity front. At the University of California San Francisco medical center, which I can see from my studio window but that’s about as close as I will ever come to claiming kinship, a clinical trial getting underway will investigate the telomere factor. You haven’t been worried about your telomeres? Get used to them. It hasn’t been so long since cholesterol and genomes became household words.

Bay Area women who volunteer for a clinical trial at UCSF will be among the first people in the world to learn the length of their telomeres – the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes that regulate cell aging and may help people live longer, healthier lives.

Research has shown that the length of people’s telomeres is related to their “cellular age” – the health and stability of certain cells in their body. Because telomere length helps determine cellular health, it’s also been identified as a possible biomarker that can reveal information about a person’s overall health. Short telomeres have been linked to health problems like heart disease and diabetes.

UCSF researchers say it’s possible that identifying a person’s telomere length someday could become as common as checking cholesterol levels. A handful of private companies already have started advertising telomere testing to individuals. In fact, two of the researchers involved in the UCSF study are looking into starting their own company to test telomere length.

The study, reported by Erin Allday in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, will concern such issues as what relationship your telomeres’ length have to health and aging in general, and whether you even need to know a lot about the little cellular-ites. “The idea of telling people their telomere length is totally new and somewhat radical…,” said Elissa Epel, an associate professor of psychiatry at UCSF and one of the lead researchers in the telomere study. (On a purely personal, though relative note: you just try not to worry about it all when you are overage — they want women 50 to 65 — for an aging study and the lead researcher looks like she’s about as old as your granddaughter.)

Medical ethicists say the UCSF study makes sense – as more attention is drawn to telomere length as a potential marker of overall health, doctors should understand whether it benefits their patients to get that information or not.

If people can’t change their telomere length, there may be no point in telling them. Telomere length may be similar to some types of genetic testing that tell people whether they’re at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease or certain types of cancer, said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics.

Some individuals may decide they want that information – but it’s not always an easy decision to make, he said. “You might find out that you seem to be a premature or rapid ager, but whether there’s anything anybody can do to stop it or reverse it, that remains to be seen,” Caplan said.

How much our telomeres will tell us, what use we can make of it all, and whether you and I really want to know — these issues remain to be seen. Or at least, to be discovered in  the coming study. I have absolute trust in the folks at UCSF. If you do too, and you fit the parameters (female living somewhere in this lovely part of California, between 50 and 65) and want to volunteer to be a part of it all, whip off an e-mail to knowyourtelomeres@ucsf.edu.

UCSF to look at new longevity, health marker.

Cell phone radiation danger: true or false?

from Grandview Park in San Francisco
Image via Wikipedia

Head-zaps, otherwise known as cell phone radiation levels, messing with your brain? Nobody knows. What we do know is that cell phones emit radiation, just as radio and TV stations do at somewhat higher levels. What we also know is that nobody cares much. The back-and-forth going on between legislators and cell phone industry lobbyists suggests that a few people do care… but it’s a long road from caring to understanding to any kind of meaningful action.

In California, where local and state efforts to increase information made available to consumers have met with mixed results, an explanation in the Letters section of today’s San Francisco Chronicle offers some interesting perspectives. To understand them, it helps to know about the city’s Sutro Tower (above), a looming structure completed in 1973 and now furnishing transmissions for 11 TV stations, 4 FM radio stations and about 20 wireless communication services.

Local electrical engineer Bill Choisser has this to say:

The power of radio waves falls off as the square of the distance. This means one watt an inch from your head (typical for a cell phone) has the same effect as 1 million watts 1,000 inches from your head. The strongest TV signals on Sutro Tower run i million watts. A thousand inches is about 83 feet. Whether putting your head 83 feet from Sutro Tower every time you talk on the phone bothers you, is up to you.

San Francisco’s board of supervisor’s voted last week to require disclosure of the measure of cell phone radiation next to sales displays, something unlikely to make the tiniest bit of difference to sellers, buyers or anyone else. The FCC has a similar requirement likely to make even less difference.

CNET’s Christina Jewett, on her California Watch blog, summed up some of the action at the state level, where Sen. Mark Leno‘s bill to make radiation level information more accessible recently died. Leno emphasizes, in a statement on his website that there’s no definitive evidence that cell phone radiation causes cancer or other illnesses. Supporters argue that there are potential health effects dangerous enough to warrant making more information available, Jewett explains, while opponents termed the whole business expensive and unnecessary.

When the bill was a going concern, it did little to slow the never-ending party that lobbyists for AT&T Inc., one of its chief opponents, tend to host at Arco Arena. The firm spent about $535,000 on lobbying during the first quarter of this year. From Kings games to Disney Stars on Ice to a Valentine’s Super Love Jam, legislative staffers continued to enjoy the hospitality. (Details below).

Whether the lobbying effort led to the bill’s demise may never be known. But the debate at least is bringing out more information on the issue, one that regulators and scientists pledge to keep watching.

Given the number of Americans walking around (or sitting, or standing in place) with cell phones plastered to their ears, I for one am happy that somebody is watching… and that Bill Choisser is explaining.

State hangs up on expansion of San Francisco phone law | California Watch.

New 'morning after' pill meets opposition from abortion foes

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 27:  In this photo i...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

With global overpopulation among the most critical problems of the 21st century, news of a highly effective contraceptive becoming available in the U.S. would seem very good news indeed. But as health writer Rob Stein reports in the Washington Post, it may not happen:

A French drug company is seeking to offer American women something their European counterparts already have: a pill that works long after “the morning after.”

The drug, dubbed ella, would be sold as a contraceptive — one that could prevent pregnancy for as many as five days after unprotected sex. But the new drug is a close chemical relative of the abortion pill RU-486, raising the possibility that it could also induce abortion by making the womb inhospitable for an embryo.

Plan B (the last emergency contraceptive vetted by the FDA), which works for up to 72 hours after sex, was eventually approved for sale without a prescription, although a doctor’s order is required for girls younger than 17. The new drug promises to extend that period to at least 120 hours. Approved in Europe last year, ella is available as an emergency contraceptive in at least 22 countries.

“With ulipristal (ella), women will be enticed to buy a poorly tested abortion drug, unaware of its medical risks, under the guise that it’s a morning-after pill,” said Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America, which led the battle against Plan B.

Plan B prevents a pregnancy by administering high doses of a hormone that mimics progesterone. It works primarily by inhibiting the ovaries from producing eggs. Critics argue it can also prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb, which some consider equivalent to an abortion.

Ella works as a contraceptive by blocking progesterone’s activity, which delays the ovaries from producing an egg. RU-486, too, blocks the action of progesterone, which is also needed to prepare the womb to accept a fertilized egg and to nurture a developing embryo. That’s how RU-486 can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting and dislodge growing embryos. Ella’s chemical similarity raises the possibility that it might do the same thing, perhaps if taken at elevated doses. But no one knows for sure because the drug has never been tested that way. Opponents of the drug are convinced it will. “It kills embryos, just like the abortion pill,” said Donna Harrison, president of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

A federal panel will convene this week to consider endorsing the drug. Those favoring approval are worried that the ambiguous sentiments, and the power of abortion foes who seem poised to weigh in against it, will influence the outcome.

“FDA should be a ‘Just the facts ma’am’ organization,” said Susan F. Wood, an associate professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services who resigned from the FDA to protest delays in making Plan B more accessible. “I’m hoping the FDA will take that position.”

There is an great unmet need out there for emergency contraception that is effective as this for so long,” said Erin Gainer, chief executive of HRA Pharma of Paris. Studies involving more than 4,500 women in the United States and Europe show that ella is safe, producing minor side effects including headaches, nausea and fatigue, she said.

The company has no plans to test ella as an abortion drug, but it did not appear to cause any problems for the handful of women who have become pregnant after taking the drug, she said.

“The people who are opposing this are not just opposed to abortion,” said Amy Allina, program director at the National Women’s Health Network. “They also opposed contraception and they are trying to confuse the issue.”

Back to the issue: the planet has a finite amount of space for human beings. When one human being (and often two human beings acting as one) seeks not to add an unwanted human being, would it not make sense to furnish all available safe, legal tools to assist in that humanitarian effort?

Stay tuned for the answer from the FDA.

New ‘morning-after’ pill, ella, raises debate over similarity to abortion drug.

Is technology addiction messing with your brain?

my brains - let me show you them
Image by Liz Henry via Flickr

This is your life? Beginning at breakfast — or perhaps earlier, in the bathroom — one sizable screen with multiple streams of news, stock reports and data updates across the bottom; tweets in a box on the left; the iPhone nearby holding stacked up e-mails, IMs and calls that went into the mailbox? If so, you are not alone. As a matter of fact, it seems almost no one is alone, or disconnected from technological communications, any more. In the words of New York Times writer Matt Richtel, “This is your brain on computers.”

Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.

These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.

The resulting distractions can have deadly consequences, as when cellphone-wielding drivers and train engineers cause wrecks. And for millions of people … these urges can inflict nicks and cuts on creativity and deep thought, interrupting work and family life.

While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.

Richtel follows a family of four through their technology-addicted lives: they go on an oceanside vacation, but soon are all on their electronic devices; one day at the beach is mercifully unplugged. But on routine days, few moments are unplugged.

“And scientists are discovering,” Richtel reports, that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.”

“The technology is rewiring our brains,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world’s leading brain scientists. She and other researchers compare the lure of digital stimulation less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess.

Technology use can benefit the brain in some ways, researchers say. Imaging studies show the brains of Internet users become more efficient at finding information. And players of some video games develop better visual acuity.

More broadly, cellphones and computers have transformed life. They let people escape their cubicles and work anywhere. They shrink distances and handle countless mundane tasks, freeing up time for more exciting pursuits.

For better or worse, the consumption of media, as varied as e-mail and TV, has exploded. In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their attention. Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour, new research shows.

The nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts ever in the human environment, said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.

“We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do,” he said. “We know already there are consequences.”

We just don’t fully understand what those consequences might be. This space worries. Couldn’t we get our adrenaline the old-fashioned way?

Your Brain on Computers – Attached to Technology and Paying a Price – NYTimes.com.

Aging brains can still follow the $$

day in the life: lunch money
Image by emdot via Flickr

Balancing the checkbook isn’t as easy as it used to be? You can’t remember where you put the keys? OhmyGOODness, you say, I must be getting old.

The bad news is, age happens. The good news is, it does not necessarily bring a concurrent loss in cognitive ability. Get a new calculator, maybe one with a bigger keypad. Accept the fact that you’ve been misplacing the keys, occasionally, since you started driving.  And take heart in a new study from Duke University indicating that, all things considered, age is not a determining feature in the ability to make sound economic decisions.

Just because your mother has turned 85, you shouldn’t assume you’ll have to take over her financial matters. She may be just as good or better than you at making quick, sound, money-making decisions, according to researchers at Duke University.

“It’s not age, it’s cognition that makes the difference in decision-making,” said Scott Huettel, PhD, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of the Duke Center for Neuroeconomic Studies. He recently led a laboratory study in which participants could gain or lose money based on their decisions.

“Once we accounted for cognitive abilities like memory and processing speed, age had nothing to do with predicting whether an individual would make the best economic decisions on the tasks we assigned,” Huettel said.

The study was published in the Psychology and Aging journal, published by the American Psychological Association.

Working with 54 older adults between 66 and 76 years old, and 58 younger adults between 18 and 35, the Duke researchers assigned a variety of economic tasks that required different types of risky decisions, so that participants could gain or lose real money.

On a bell curve of performance, there was overlap between the younger and older groups. Many of the older subjects (aged 66 to 76) made similar decisions to many of the younger subjects (aged 18 to 35). “The stereotype of all older adults becoming more risk-averse is simply wrong,” Huettel said.

Getting to the heart — and brain — of the issue, PositScience blogger Ted Baxa says “this finding will come as no surprise to many.  Legendary investor Warren Buffett, 79, continues to outperform fund managers half his age.  The message to take from this article is that age by itself, as the saying goes, is just a number.”

When you finish with the checkbook, in other words, you might want to get busy on your brain exercises.

Cognitive Ability, Not Age, Predicts Risky Decisions – DukeHealth.org.