Random Samples

Science  24 Oct 2008:
Vol. 322, Issue 5901, pp. 509
  1. BRING OUT YOUR DEAD!

    CREDIT: BETTMANN/CORBIS

    Life in merrie olde England was hazardous to health, especially for men, researchers have concluded after reviewing coroner records from Sussex county for the years 1485 to 1688. Of the 1169 adult deaths investigated by a coroner, 35% were accidental, the researchers report this week in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. Men accounted for fully 86% of the victims. Drowning, either at sea or in ponds or wells, caused more than one-third of the deaths. Travel was particularly dangerous. About 30% of deaths were triggered by mishaps such as being thrown from horses or battered by an errant wagon part.

    Lead author Elizabeth Towner, an injury-prevention researcher at the University of the West of England in the United Kingdom, says the statistics are more than just historical curiosity. Lack of proper safety precautions and poor health care seen in the past are still mirrored in the developing world, where activities such as travel in antiquated buses and overcrowded ferries remains dangerous. The field of accident research has much to learn from such retrospective studies, says Andrea Gielen, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who notes that accidents, most of them in poorer countries, cause 5 million deaths a year.

  2. FROM A TO Y

    The results are in: Australia is the most prosperous country in the world; Yemen drags at the bottom of the list. But it's not just wealth that makes a country prosperous, according to the 2008 prosperity index, also known as the “happiness index,” published last week by the Legatum Institute (LI) in Dubai (see http://www.prosperity.com/). The institute based its rankings on surveys of economic competitiveness and comparative livability from 140 countries, including factors such as capital investment and the degree of social equality.

    This year, for the first time, countries' environmental efforts counted toward their scores, says LI Senior Vice President William Inboden. The institute selected an objective measurement—the ratio of developed land to land remaining in its natural state in each country—and added questions about how respondents felt about their country's environmental policies. Depending on a country's wealth, the environmental measures could count for as much as 4% of a country's prosperity score. Although Australia was the most prosperous country overall, New Zealand topped the environmental measures. The most environmentally unhappy people were Ukrainians, who particularly dislike their air quality.

  3. GENOMES FOR THE WORLD

    George Dyson learned that his sister Esther (left) planned to publish her sequenced genome after reading about it in The New York Times. His immediate reaction? “Gee, she didn't ask any of us,” he says. But George Dyson, a historian of science in Bellingham, Washington, has no qualms about seeing personal DNA (much of which he shares) in the public domain. Admittedly, the Dysons are better versed than most in genetics: Esther Dyson, an investor in and board member of the genetics company 23andMe, had already supplied family members with the company's DNA test kits.

    CREDIT: REUTERS/JONATHAN EVANS

    Dyson's is one of the first 10 genomes made publicly available in the Personal Genome Project, brainchild of Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church. Church is raising money to sequence key portions of the genomes of 100,000 people, to be released along with their health records.

    “I'm certainly not presenting this as offering new science,” says Church, who notes that many more genomes matched with health records will be needed first. Already, 5000 more people have expressed interest. Participants have the option of withholding some data. “I exercised a line-item veto on the hemorrhoids and erectile dysfunction,” joked Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, one of the 10. More seriously, he says, he may keep the status of his APOE gene—related to risk of Alzheimer's disease—under wraps, as DNA discoverer James Watson did when he had his genome sequenced last year.

  4. INTERNET AND THE AGING BRAIN

    Web searching activated more neurons (bottom fMRI scan) than just reading text. CREDIT: GARY SMALL/UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, LOS ANGELES

    Google users gasped when presidential candidate John McCain joked that he relies on his wife, Cindy, to help him navigate the Internet. But new research shows that for McCain and others like him, surfing the Net can give their brains a good workout.

    Researchers recruited two groups of 12 seniors of comparable education levels and health, equally divided by gender. One group had little or no Web experience; the other used the Internet at least once a day.

    Each underwent brain scans while reading text on a computer screen and searching for information on the Internet. The reading task activated areas of the brain responsible for vision and language processing. The Internet search got more neurons popping, in areas involved in reasoning and memory, such as the frontal lobes and hippocampus, the researchers report in the upcoming issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

    The Net-savvy elders showed twice as much brain activity during the search task as the Net-naïve group did, says lead researcher Gary Small, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Once we understand the task, then the circuits become more engaged,” he says. So McCain would have to practice doing “a Google” or two to reap neural benefits from Internet searches.

    Denise Park, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas, Dallas, calls the study “provocative and interesting.” It's a “nice first step” in understanding how Web searches engage our brains, she says.