Health & Science

When vegetarianism is just a cover story; The roots of scratching; Rewiring transplanted hands; Help for the kleptomaniac; The value of sisters

When vegetarianism is just a cover story

People choose to become vegetarians for various reasons—to eat a more healthful diet, and to refuse to participate in the killing of animals. But for many teenagers, a new study suggests, swearing off meat might actually be motivated by an eating disorder. A University of Minnesota study of 2,500 teens found that about 25 percent of the kids who say they’re vegetarians engage in bulimia—binge-eating and vomiting—or extreme weight-loss strategies such as gobbling diet pills and laxatives. That’s more than twice the rate of eating disorders found among meat-eating kids. Some teens who tell their parents that they want to abstain from eating animals, the study says, may be using vegetarianism as a ploy to justify eating less and losing lots of weight. Researchers say there’s nothing unhealthful about a vegetarian diet that includes appropriate amounts of calories, protein, iron, and other key nutrients. “Parents should talk to their child about the motivations for embarking on a vegetarian diet,” Dr. Ramona Robinson-O’Brien tells If thinness is the real goal, she says, it may be time for a professional psychological intervention.

The roots of scratching

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Why does scratching relieve itching? Scientists have long wondered whether the message to scratch comes from the brain or from the skin itself. But a new study has found that it may be neither. Researchers outfitted macaque monkeys with electrodes to measure neurons firing through the spinal cord, and then injected the animals with histamines, chemicals that cause itchiness. Special neurons in the itchy monkeys’ spinal cords—which transmit information about pain, temperature, and touch to the brain—began firing like crazy, and they only quieted down when the monkeys were scratched. “It’s like there’s a little brain” in the spinal cord, neuroscientist Glenn Geisler tells the Associated Press. “We really want to understand that, because then we think we’ll understand how to relieve itching.” He cautions, however, that there are remaining mysteries about the itch-scratch phenomenon, such as why emotional and psychological factors can trigger intense bouts of itchiness and the need to scratch.

Rewiring transplanted hands

Two men who lost their hands in industrial accidents have gone from being right-handed to left-handed. Each man was given a new set of donor hands, and as researchers tracked their recovery, they were surprised to find that the neural connections to the patients’ new left hands were forming far faster than those to their right hands, and both men were able to perform more complex tasks with their left hands. In short, they were turning into lefties. What happened? It is known that the left brain controls the right half of our bodies while the right brain controls the left half. The two amputees are becoming left-handed, scientists theorize, because the right brain, which is believed to be dominant in dealing with spatial tasks, is more “plastic,” or adaptable to its new job. The two cases demonstrate how skilled the brain is at “retraining the circuits” needed to operate our hands, neuroscientist Angela Sirigu tells ScienceNow. The results, Sirigu says, could have “important clinical applications for rehabilitation.”

Help for the kleptomaniac

There’s a drug for many unhealthy compulsions—smokers have Chantix, alcoholics have Antabuse, and heroin addicts can turn to methadone. But kleptomaniacs, who suffer an uncontrollable urge to steal, have no such remedy. So researcher Jon Grant at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine decided to test the ability of an anti-addiction drug called naltrexone to curb shoplifters’ drive to steal. He dosed 25 certified kleptos with naltrexone, then released them into the retail wild. The subjects found that while their urges weren’t completely gone, the drug did significantly reduce the “rush” they felt as they made off with their booty. “The difference in their behavior was significant,” Grant tells “These people were really troubled by their behavior.”

The value of sisters

If you have a sister, consider yourself lucky, says Psychologists at the U.K.’s University of Ulster quizzed more than 500 adults on their mental health and their family histories, and found that those who had grown up with sisters were more likely to be happy and well-adjusted. Girls are generally more expressive than boys, and researchers found that girls tend to foster communication among family members, which can promote family harmony and individual mental health. Especially during stressful times such as a divorce, researchers found, sisters served as a calming influence on the entire family. “Sisters appear to encourage more open communication and cohesion in families,” says study author Tony Cassidy. Boys, though, can be trouble. “Boys tend to internalize problems,” says family counselor Geri Burnikell, “and in families where there are lots of sons, I can see that can cause problems.”

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