Health & Science

Brain-damaged, comatose—but conscious; The Rocky Mountain diet; Sex ed that works; How not to hate your spouse

Brain-damaged, comatose—but conscious

Despite appearing completely comatose, some “vegetative” patients remain aware of their surroundings and may even be able to communicate their thoughts, new research shows. An international team of neurologists used a sophisticated brain-scanning tool called a functional MRI to peer inside the minds of 54 brain-damaged patients classified as either in a “persistent vegetative state” or “minimally conscious.” The patients were all asked to imagine that they were playing tennis, and then to imagine that they were exploring their homes, room by room. Most of the patients’ scans showed no activity. But five patients’ brains “lit up” in the right areas, clearly indicating that they were responding to the spoken directions and visualizing the two activities. “It was incredible,” neuroscientist and study leader Adrian Owen tells The Washington Post. “These are patients who are totally unable to perform functions with their bodies—even blink an eye or move an eyebrow—but yet are entirely conscious. It’s quite distressing, really, to realize this.” One of the patients, a 29-year-old Belgian man, was even able to respond to questions about his personal life—“Is your father’s name Alexander?” —by visualizing playing tennis for “yes” and walking through his home for “no.” Scientists and doctors must now consider the possibility that some “vegetative” patients could be asked to make decisions about their treatment—and even whether they want to go on living. “They can now have some involvement in their own destiny,” says Owen.

The Rocky Mountain diet

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Want to lose weight? Climb a mountain—and stay there for a few weeks, says A new study found that obese people who spent time at high altitude lost weight without going on a diet and kept most of it off when they returned to sea level. It’s long been known that mountaineers and athletes who train at high altitude become very fit and lose weight. To see if non-athletes would experience the same effect, German researchers brought 20 obese males to a research facility 8,700 feet above sea level. The participants were told to eat whatever they wanted and weren’t allowed to exercise strenuously. After just two weeks, they lost an average of 3.3 pounds. Their bodies were analyzed, and researchers found that living in the thin, low-oxygen air raised the men’s metabolic rates as well as their levels of leptin, a hormone that signals you’ve had enough to eat. Surprisingly, the men kept most of the weight off for a month after they returned to normal altitude, because their metabolic rates remained elevated. Researchers said their metabolism appeared to return to normal after about six months.

Sex ed that works

Does abstinence-only sex education succeed in convincing teens to remain virgins? Up to now, research has shown that it does not. But a new type of sex ed that emphasizes abstaining from sex, but avoids a moralistic tone and appeals to teens’ self-interest, does succeed in delaying sexual activity for some teens, says a new study. The new program, developed by University of Pennsylvania researchers, is based on theories about what really motivates people, not on an attempt to convince teens that sex is sinful or immoral. A group of sixth- and seventh-graders were given assignments that helped them see the consequences of sexual activity at their age; they were then asked to make lists of pros and cons themselves. (The cons heavily outweighed the pros.) The teens were counseled to delay sex “until they were ready,” instead of waiting until marriage. Two years later, about two-thirds of teens in this group said they had abstained from sex—a much higher percentage than in control groups of teens who hadn’t taken the class or had taken other kinds of sex-ed classes. “This really is game-changing research,” Bill Albert, of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, told The Christian Science Monitor. “The menu of proven options just got longer, and that’s good news.”

How not to hate your spouse

Couples who often use the words “we” and “our” have happier marriages than those who usually use the words “I” and “his” or “her.” That’s the conclusion of a new University of California, Berkeley, study on how couples fight and resolve marital disagreements. Researchers analyzed the conversations of 154 middle-aged and older couples as they discussed the conflicts in their marriages, while monitoring physiological indicators of stress and anger, such as heart rate and sweating. Couples who used lots of “I” words were more likely to turn the discussions into bitter fights and to express overall dissatisfaction with their marriages. Couples who consistently spoke of their problems in the context of “we” and “us” were less stressed by disagreement and happier in general. “Individuality is a deeply ingrained value in society,” researcher Robert Levenson tells the Edinburgh Scotsman. “But, at least in the realm of marriage, being part of a ‘we’ is well worth giving up a bit of ‘me.’”

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