Random Samples

Science  07 Nov 2003:
Vol. 302, Issue 5647, pp. 981

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  1. Did FDR Have Guillain-Barré?

    A new analysis of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's symptoms suggests he might not have been stricken by polio but by Guillain-Barré syndrome.

    In 1921, at the beginning of his political career, Roosevelt became feverish and developed paralysis, which started in his legs and moved up to his neck. Although he recovered partially, he remained permanently wheelchair-bound.

    Immunological pediatrician Armond Goldman of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston now says FDR's symptoms are more concordant with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a bacterially induced autoimmune disease. For example, polio paralyzes limbs unevenly and doesn't move up the body as happened with Roosevelt. The intense pain he felt when people touched his paralyzed legs isn't commonly seen in poliomyelitis. What's more, it would be highly unusual for polio to strike someone well into adulthood.

    The Goldman team compiled all the details they could find of FDR's case and scoured the literature to determine how common the symptoms were 80 years ago. They then calculated the likelihood that a 39-year-old man with each of eight symptoms would be hit by either polio or Guillain-Barré. The latter emerged as the more likely cause of his paralysis, they report in the 1 November Journal of Medical Biography.

    “The result is interesting both historically and neurologically,” says neurologist Deborah Green of the University of Hawaii School of Medicine at Manoa. FDR's misdiagnosis—if such it was—may have changed the course of history, because his affliction gave great momentum to efforts to develop a polio vaccine. But Green notes that “there's no way to prove [a misdiagnosis] without testing the spinal cord fluid.” Neurologist H. Royden Jones of Harvard Medical School in Boston adds that the researchers could be wrong in assuming that “Guillain-Barré is the same now as it was back then.”

  2. Getting Into a Cassowary's Head

    What's the purpose of a cassowary's headpiece? No one really knows, but scientists believe they are moving in on the secret with recordings of cassowary calls in the jungles of New Guinea.

    The cassowary call consists of a short series of noises that jungle adventurers have described as booming. Conservation biologist Andrew Mack of the Wildlife Conservation Society has been recording them and with Josh Jones of the University of California, San Diego, has come up with the first evidence that cassowaries may dip into the range of infrasound with their vibrating tones that go as far down as 23 Hz. (The human threshhold is about 20 Hz.) Infrasound, rare among terrestrial animals, is appropriate for this solitary animal because the sound carries well through long stretches of dense jungle, Mack says.

    New Guinea cassowary. (Inset, oviraptor skull cast.)


    Scientists have theorized that the casques atop their heads may have an amplifying effect. But their size didn't fit with the theory, and Mack says he now suspects that they are involved instead in receiving signals. “We realized if the casque has two separate densities”—the horny exterior and interior dark “sludge”—“it could act as a sensory device, like a boundary-layer microphone, if the casque somehow vibrates or connects to the inner ear.”

    The research, reported in the October issue of Auk, should help both conservation and science, says Mack. And he thinks understanding of the sound production of these primitive birds will provide insights into crested dinosaurs. Dinosaur expert Thomas Holtz of the University of Maryland, College Park, agrees that it's possible that crested dinosaurs such as the cassowary-sized oviraptors “could have used their crests in some sort of sound system. … This new study is getting me thinking about that.”

  3. Ritual Plant Atlas

    Ever wondered why red roses symbolize passionate love, why kissing under the mistletoe is a Christmas tradition, and what kind of mushroom grows where witches dance at night? Find out in the new Compendium of Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe, the first full modern survey of the role of plants in Europe's religions, traditions, and medicine.

    The mandrake root for many centuries was thought to act as both a painkiller and an aphrodisiac.


    Until now, information on the subject has been scattered and lacking in botanical rigor, says ethnobotanist Marcel De Cleene of the University of Ghent in Belgium. De Cleene and colleague Marie Claire Lejeune spent 20 years filling the gap. The 1600-page Compendium, published last month, contains information collected from thousands of texts dating to ancient Roman and Greek times.

  4. Milestones

    Lifelines. Researchers working on embryonic stem cells around the world will soon benefit from one scientist's personal war against diabetes.

    Last week Harvard developmental biologist Douglas Melton announced that he had derived 17 new human embryonic stem cell lines. The lines, developed with private funding, wouldn't be ideal for clinical trials because they are grown on mouse cells and are off-limits to researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health because they were created after the 9 August 2001 date set by President George W. Bush. But Melton says that they “are easy to grow and will be freely available” for research purposes.


    Melton's 12-year-old son was diagnosed with diabetes as an infant, and last year his teenaged daughter received the same somber news. “It just makes me want to work harder,” he says about his attempts to coax stem cells into becoming pancreatic islet cells that could be used to cure the disease.

  5. In Print

    Setting the table. Women still have far to go to achieve gender equity in science. But a new guide to more than 200 projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) has already hit on a winning formula.

    The compendium, entitled New Formulas for America's Workforce: Girls in Science and Engineering, features an eye-catching “periodic table of contents” that depicts each chapter as chemical elements (above). “We were trying to find a slightly jazzier way to package the results,” says Mike Cosgrove of Low & Associates, the Bethesda, Maryland, company that designed the novel table and wrote the project summaries.

    The volume isn't exactly NSF's greatest hits, admits Ruta Sevo, who runs the $10-million-a-year gender research program within the foundation's education directorate. “Not all of these projects were successful, and some are still in progress,” she says. “But it covers everything we've funded since 1993.”

    The first 10,000 copies flew off the shelves, Sevo says, making New Formulas number two on NSF's list of best-selling publications behind the dull-but-essential Guide to Programs. A second printing is in the offing; in the meantime, it's available electronically at nsf.gov/pubs/2003/nsf03207/start.htm.

  6. Awards

    Fresh blood. The Institute of Medicine elected 65 new members at its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., last week, taking its active membership to 1382. It also added five foreign associates (http://www.iom.edu/).

    In addition, the institute awarded the $20,000 Sarnat Prize in Mental Health to psychiatrist Aaron Beck, whose work in cognitive therapy has led to effective treatments for depression, social phobia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Bernard Harrison and B. Jaye Anno, co-founders of the Santa Fe, New Mexico-based National Commission on Correctional Health Care, share the $25,000 Gustav Lienhard Award for improving medical care in jails, prisons, and juvenile detention facilities.

  7. Jobs

    Back to school. After more than a decade in health policy, former Institute of Medicine (IOM) president Kenneth Shine is returning to academic administration. Shine, who currently heads RAND Corp.'s Center for Domestic and International Health Security in Washington, D.C., embarks for Austin later this month to manage health programs for the University of Texas (UT).

    As UT's executive vice chancellor for health affairs, the 68-year-old Shine will oversee a $5 billion research and education portfolio across five campuses. He hopes “to put into practice a lot of the policy work that I've been doing for the past 10 to 12 years,” including attempts to “improve patient care and reduce health disparities.”

  8. Data Points

    Stop sign. In what may be a reaction to tightened immigration policies since the 11 September terrorist attacks, Islamic countries sent fewer students to the United States last year. Figures from the Institute of International Education (IIE) show declines from both the Middle East and the heavily Muslim regions of North Africa, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia for the 2002–03 academic year.

    Concerns about the safety of their students and local economic problems may also have contributed to the decline, says Peggy Blumenthal, IIE's vice president for educational services, who speculates that the United States may be losing at least some science and engineering students from these countries to British and Australian universities.

    Even so, students in engineering and the physical and life sciences continue to pour into the country. The overall number rose by 8% in 2002–03, to 140,094.