Feature

Health & Science

A new way to block HIV; A possible alternative to Viagra; Doodling for better concentration; The porn paradox; The value of interruptions

A new way to block HIV
Efforts to find a vaccine to prevent AIDS have thus far failed. But scientists have high hopes that a common antimicrobial gel could protect millions of women from the disease. A new University of Minnesota study involving monkeys found that the antimicrobial agent, called glycerol monolaurate, or GML, might greatly reduce a woman’s risk of being infected, especially in Africa, where women are often afraid to use condoms because of their partners’ objections. It can also protect men who have sex with men. After a woman has sex with an HIV-infected partner, her immune-response cells rush to the blood vessels in the vagina to attack the invading virus. But instead of protecting her, this attack squad of infection-fighting cells actually makes the female more vulnerable to contracting HIV because the virus is designed to penetrate immune cells and turn them into virus-making factories. The gel appears to protect the body from infection by suppressing the immune response—in effect, by telling the body to ignore the virus. “You would think we should induce the innate immune response,” immunologist Ashley Haase, author of the study, tells Nature. “But it turns out these viruses have not only learned to live with that immune response, they relish it.” In his monkey trials, vaginal application of the gel before sex blocked four out of five infections by the simian version of HIV.

A possible alternative to Viagra
The rotten-egg stink of hydrogen sulfide gas may not seem like a love potion, but scientists say it may be the next big treatment for erectile dysfunction. Hydrogen sulfide is the stinky chemical in rotten eggs and flatulence, but it’s also a key signaling molecule in the body. Italian scientists found that when they exposed blood vessels in the penis to hydrogen sulfide, they opened up and filled with blood—the process by which erections are made. Hydrogen sulfide, the researchers say, could be a key component in a new treatment for ED. “There is certainly a need for an alternative to Viagra,” Dr. Graham Jackson tells BBCnews.com. “It is only about 60 percent effective in people with diabetes and 80 percent to 85 percent effective for the general population.”

Doodling for better concentration
Doodling during the morning staff meeting may seem rude, says LiveScience, but it’s actually a great way to keep your mind on task. Researchers have found that doodling during a boring talk can boost the listener’s memory of what was said. British researchers forced a group of men and women to listen to a long voice mail message about a party invite. Half the group was given pen and paper and a license to doodle; the other half was told to sit quietly. Later, the doodlers were able to recall an average of 7.5 pieces of information from the message. The nondoodlers remembered only 5.8 pieces. Researchers believe that doodling keeps the mind concentrated by allowing it to wander just enough. “If someone is doing a boring task, like listening to a dull telephone conversation, they may start to daydream,” says psychology professor Jackie Andrade. “A simple task, like doodling, may be sufficient to stop daydreaming without affecting performance on the main task.”

The porn paradox
Guess which states are most interested in online pornography? That’s right—those with the highest concentrations of politically conservative and traditionally religious people. Of the top 10 porn-buying states in the nation, says a new Harvard University study, eight voted Republican in the last presidential election. In states in which laws have been passed banning gay marriage, subscription rates to porn sites are 11 percent greater than in states without gay-marriage bans. In Utah, most people agreed with the statement, “I have old-fashioned values about family and marriage.” Yet Utah boasts the highest porn-buying rate in the entire nation. Why are people in “red” states more likely to indulge in online porn? Perhaps they’re simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by sexuality, study author Benjamin Edelman tells New Scientist. “One natural hypothesis is something like repression: If you’re told you can’t have this, then you want it more.”

The value of interruptions
What’s the easiest way to turn a good TV show into a great one? Add some commercials, says The New York Times. Two separate studies of television viewers found the same surprising result: When forced to sit through annoying advertisements to watch a given show, people enjoyed the show more than when they were able to watch it straight through. This concept is valuable not just for advertisers and consumer psychologists—it also tells us something about human nature, says Dr. Leif Nelson, author of one of the studies. Irritating interruptions and chores help us to appreciate enjoyable experiences, he says, because our senses become habituated to even the most pleasurable input over time. “Listening to a song, watching a TV program, having a massage: These all start out very enjoyable, and within a few minutes we get used to it. Interruptions break that up.”

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