Friday, February 16, 2007
Imaging the pre-criminal mind
Remember that Tom Cruise movie "Minority Report," where the cops were able to see into the future and then bust people for crimes that they were going to commit, before they committed them? That was science fiction, but what if I told you we're not so far away from a world where reading people's intentions becomes a regular thing?

A team of researchers, led by John-Dylan Haynes at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, has figured out a way to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to decode what people are intending to do in the future. They train their computers to learn what your fMRI brain patterns look like when you have certain thoughts, and then use that knowledge to figure out what you're about to do.

For now, they're only able to read intentions with about 70 percent accuracy. And you can't just grab someone off the street and figure out his or her intentions immediately. First the fMRI machine has to be calibrated to each person, and it's a huge machine so you have to actually bring the person to the machine. At most you can read very binary or "yes-no"-type answers for one thing at a time, and you have to pre-determine what the possible outcomes are going to be. For example, the researchers asked test subjects to decide ahead of time whether they were going to either add or subtract two numbers, and then the scientists trained their computers to recognize what the brain looked like for each of the two results.

Despite the limitations, Dr. Haynes says we're about 20 or 30 years away from having "Minority Report"-type technology, which to me doesn’t sound like much longer. In the next couple of years, as the next generation of more sensitive fMRI machines are developed, we're probably going to see these systems used commonly as more accurate lie detectors, for neuromarketing (detecting consumers' attitudes about products), and for prospective employee screening.

Ethicists are up in arms over all this. We're ushering in an era of using personal medical data in a whole new way, and some of it can feel... scary. Other research has been done using fMRI brain scanning to detect whether someone is having moral or amoral thoughts, or whether his or her brain looks like one of a criminal psychopath or a non-criminal. Scientists have also recognized what the brain looks like when it is able to control feelings of arousal, so there is now talk of using that information to decide whether a sex offender in prison has been fully rehabilitated or not.

Soon it may be possible to read people's future intentions even before they are conscious of them. Do you think we should welcome this brain-reading technology, or are we opening up Pandora's box here?
Thursday, February 15, 2007
My mom sets the pace at 81
One of the things I look forward to every June is the Race for the Cure, held in Washington, D.C. Each year my daughter, my mother and I wake up early, put our race shirts on, pin our numbers on our chests, our "In Honor " banners on our backs and walk the three plus miles downtown It's always a special occasion. That's because we walk in honor of my mother, a 30-year breast cancer survivor. Thirty years!!!! And she still walks every year, even at the age of 81.

It's a thrill to take part in the race for two reasons. One is, obviously, we give thanks for my mother's survival, but the second is even more rewarding. I love to see the look on women's faces when they notice the "30 year breast cancer survivor" written on my mom's back. Many of those walking are breast cancer patients in their 30s, 40s and 50s. And for them to know that someone can survive way into their golden years after breast cancer gives them hope. Many of them hug her; some cry but almost all thank her for giving them a reason to keep fighting.

When my mother's cancer was diagnosed in the early '70s, there wasn't a lot being done for breast cancer patients. She found the lump while bathing. It was the size of a dime. Her doctor figured it was just a cyst, but the biopsy proved him wrong. It was cancer. For a lump the size of a large pea, she had her entire right breast removed. But the physicians said she was lucky. The cancer had not spread to the lymph nodes and she didn't need chemotherapy or radiation treatments. But she did lose her right breast and never had reconstruction. That's just not something they did back then.

She's had a few scares, but she remains cancer free. She's never smoked, eats well, exercises and sees the doctor twice a year. She lives with the knowledge that she will always be a cancer patient, but she knows she's beaten the odds and that she's been sort of a pioneer in the fight against the disease.

Thirty years later, there are so many more treatments, more diagnostic tests for breast cancer, and women are beating it every day. Breast cancer is not a death sentence. There is hope - lots of it. Just ask my mom.

I'm curious to hear about your experiences with breast cancer.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Finding the secrets of youth
Dona Panchita is over 100 years old
The most amazing thing about Dona Panchita is not that she can chop a four-foot tall heap of firewood with an old rusty axe, or that she faithfully walks a quarter of a mile to church every Sunday. It's not that she prefers to clean her laundry by hand, or that she makes all of her meals from scratch on a traditional wood-burning stove. What's amazing about Dona Panchita is that she does all of these things AND she is more than 100 years old.

For the past two weeks I traveled with Dan Buettner of Quest Networks Inc. exploring the secrets of longevity on the Guanacaste Coast of Costa Rica. During the trip we met numerous centenarians like Dona Panchita - all of whom possessed an extraordinary vigor for life and an ability to do what I sometimes completely neglect - to savor life.

Most centenarians seem to have found a healthy balance between work and play - a philosophy that might not be so easy to grasp for the average workaholic. In fact, one of the most surprising contributors to longevity was a factor I had never even considered - family. In many aspects, centenarians are never alone. It's not uncommon, for example, to find five generations of one family living in one neighborhood - or even under the same roof. All of the centenarians we met in Costa Rica made family, friends and religious networks an uncompromising priority.

In the United States, we often get so wrapped up in working, there's hardly any time left for our personal lives. Quality of life is sacrificed for the drive to get ahead on the job. According to Dan Buettner, what Americans often fail to do is get the most good years out of life and the most life out of years. He says what really counts is, "what is my chance to live from this point on."

So what can we do? There's an old saying that "the tragedy of life is not that it ends too soon, but that we wait too long to begin it." Speaking with a person who has been alive for 10 decades certainly puts that phrase into perspective. It's never really too late to begin. As you hustle through another busy work day, take a moment to stop and think, what's it all about? Save some time to spend with family and friends... and you could possibly add several more good years to your life.

I'm curious - what are your secrets for living a long life?
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Are adoptive parents more attentive than biological parents?
The guest of honor was the size of a Honeybaked ham and just as sweet. After months of fervent prayers and false starts, Doug and Cheryl's dreams of adopting a child had finally come true. They named their son Alexander James, but everyone calls him AJ. At AJ's welcome-home party, I looked around the room. Strangers hugged and family members cried as the little man slept securely in his daddy's arms. I had no doubt love is thicker than blood. AJ was finally home.

From Doug and Cheryl to Angelina and Brad, it seems as if everyone is adopting these days. A recent survey found that up to 4 percent of U.S. households include adopted children. That number is expected to increase, so I was interested to read about a new study that finds adoptive parents invest more time and financial resources in their children compared with biological parents. (See Full Study)

Intrigued, I called one of the researchers, Dr. Brian Powell at Indiana University. He says that, ironically, the challenges adoptive parents face actually set the stage for them to excel in parenting. "Society often tells people that adoption isn't normal," says Dr. Powell. As a result, he says, adoptive parents often spend more time with their children, know their friends and their friends' parents and are more involved with school activities.

Dr. Powell also believes this study could change public policy and the way adoption is handled in the courts. The legal system usually bases its decisions on what's in the best interest of the child. Historically, it's been assumed that in most instances children are better off with their biological parents and that adoption should be considered only as a last resort. These new findings, say Dr. Powell, could change the way the legal system handles international adoptions (for example, by older, single parents) and adoptions by same-sex couples.

I want to know what you think. Do you think adoptive parents invest more in their kids than biological parents? Also, do you think this study will change the debate when it comes to same-sex adoption?
Monday, February 12, 2007
Health awareness days: Mark your calendars again and again
It's February. There are hearts everywhere. Most of them are for Valentine's Day, but some are commemorating American Heart Month. After all, it was just a couple of Fridays ago, February 2, when celebrities around the country, including CNN's own Larry King, Paula Zahn and Soledad O'Brien, helped observe National Wear Red Day. Public service announcements on heart health abound.

American Heart Month is just one of more than 200 official National Health Observances in 2007. Every year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services develops a calendar of these awareness days, weeks and months to highlight a particular disease or health issue. Each year, HHS gets dozens of requests to get more issues on an already crowded calendar. In addition to hearts, this month has lesser-known awareness days for low vision, prenatal infection, children's dental health, burns, children of alcoholics, organ donation and eating disorders. Sometimes it seems that the dates assigned to a particular issue are chosen at random. All of them are serious health issues needing attention, but what is my personal February favorite? Today is the first day of National Condom Week and Valentine's Day is National Condom Day. Apparently, February is a good time to talk about hearts and condoms.

A National Health Observance Day can bring much-needed attention and donations to an important health issue. Last year's "Go Red for Women" raised $2.1 million for National Wear Red Day out of a total of $23 million for the year. There is no real way to quantify the effects of these events, but Dr. Elizabeth Nabel of the American Heart Association points out that before National Wear Red Day started in 2004, 1 in 3 women died of heart disease. Now, those numbers have improved to 1 in 4 women.

Breast Cancer Awareness in October and Lung Cancer Awareness in November are other examples of successful health awareness events. The pink-ribbon campaign dates back to 1992, when 1.5 million ribbons were handed out along with self-breast exam instructions at Estee Lauder cosmetic counters around the country. Now, pink is an unmistakable icon for breast cancer. Every November, the American Cancer Society launches the Great American Smokeout. The Quitline and the ACS Web site get the highest traffic of the year around that day.

I think awareness days can be incredibly successful. As a health journalist, I get a deluge of story pitches from publicity campaigns ranging from Colorectal Cancer Month to Jaw Joints/TMJ Day to National Fruit and Vegetable Day. The most successful campaigns usually are marked by a healthy budget and passionate advocates.

Do you think February as Heart Month and October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month make a difference? Do you pay more attention when you find out that today is a day highlighting a particular issue? Which health issues deserve their own days?

Editor's note: CNN Medical Intern Caroline Bray contributed to this blog
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