Joint Pain, Scaly Anteaters and Autism

• Can people really tell when it’s going to rain because they “feel it in their bones?” The answer is yes, because changes in the weather, signaled by a falling barometer, can cause changes in the pressure in the space surrounding joints. In many causes this results in discomfort, especially for people with rheumatoid arthritis. Thus a rising barometer may bring joint relief. (Consumer Reports of Health, August, 2011)

• Many studies have shown positive effects of religion and spirituality on mental wellbeing. However, there are a few studies showing negative effects. Researchers at Duke University used MRI imaging to study the volume (= size) of the hippocampus in the brains of 268 men and women aged 58 and over. The hippocampus is a key part of the brain involved in memory formation and emotion. The study compared hippocampus size in religious and non-religious individuals, and in the former special attention was paid to those who were “born again” or who had life-changing religious experiences. The volume of the hippocampus was smaller in individuals reporting life-changing religious experiences. The denomination of the individual appeared not to be a factor. To explain this surprising finding, researchers hypothesized that those with reduced hippocampus size experienced higher levels of stress associated with a struggle with their beliefs. This causes a release of stress hormones known to depress hippocampus volume over time. Obviously, more research needs to be done on this subject. (The Brain in the News, June, 2011; Owen, A.D., et al, PLos One, March, 2011)

• Believe it or not, there exists a two-to-four foot long mammal with large overlapping scales that give it the appearance of an oversized pinecone. It has no fur or hair, but it does have eyelashes even though its sense of sight is poor. Its narrow head has no ears and its mouth has no teeth. This strange animal can walk on its hind legs, with its long tail held in a horizontal position to help balance it. In a pinch, it can take off at a slow run, with a top speed of about 5 mph. The young ride on the mother’s tail. When attacked, the mother rolls into a ball with her thick scales on the outside and the single baby protected inside of the ball. This remarkable beast, unrelated to the armadillo, is called the Pangolin, or Scaly Anteater. There are four species found in Africa and Asia. Sad to say, they are being hunted to extinction due to demand for their skin and meat. (A Guide to the Wildlife of Luangwa Valley, by Norman Carr, 1985, Montfort Press, Limbe, Malawi, Zambia;

• In 1990, six of every 10,000 children born in California were diagnosed with autism by the age of five. By 2001, the number had risen to 42 autistic children by age five. Epidemiologists conclude that population change and better diagnostic methods cannot account for the increase. At one time researchers believed that genetics played a dominant role in the development of autism; however, recent studies suggest that environmental factors are equally important. Studies indicate that mothers exposed to very low levels of many kinds of chemicals, especially those toxic to the development of a fetus’s nervous system, can contribute to autism. More and more studies suggest links to a mother’s exposure to certain antidepressants. Other suspect chemicals are mercury, PCBs, lead, flame retardants in fabrics, certain insecticides, and products made of bisphenyl A (BPA). For years scientists have known that the developing nervous systems of fetuses, in all mammals, are highly sensitive to exceedingly low levels of many kinds of chemicals. Similar levels may have little or no effect on adults of the species. (New Scientist, July 7, 2011; Scientific American, Jan. 2009;, July 4, 2011; other sources)