What's up!

by Christina Roche

Because of the down economy many PACT programs in the Boston area will be closing their doors, or cutting stuff, according to Carolyn Johnson’s article, A Painful Loss for the Mentally Ill.

For some people with mental health problems, a hospital is not the place for them. Not only is it more expensive (around $15,00 for two hospitalizations according to the president of the Center for Human Development, Jim Goodwin) but they do not always benefit from an absence of independence.

The PACT program of Boston is a solution for people who need their own independence and care for their condition. Patients “receive multidisciplinary, round the clock staffing of a psychiatric unit, but within the comfort of their own home and community,” (NAMI).

“I have my own apartment. I have a cat, it just wouldn’t make any sense – I’m not the type who needs to be hospitalized for long periods of time,” said Linda Ivy Crowder, a woman who suffers from a bipolar disorder and sometimes experiences psychotic episodes (Carolyn Johson).

The program let Crowder keep her independence and helped her to gain hobbies like, “painting, reading, and writing.”  She is able to see doctors and be honest with them about how she is feeling each day.

The state Department of Mental Health has decided to cut $1.03 million from PACT’s $644 million budget. Patients like Crowder will have to brace themselves as PACT is forced to shut 16 of its locations to save money from the drop of revenues.

Marcia Fowler, assistant for mental health service, spoke with Carolyn Johnson and said it will be tough of course. She noted that the PACT programs that were chosen to close were the ones in close vicinity to other programs of the like. Once patients are absorbed into similar programs, the locations will close for good.

Patients like Linda Crowder will miss how staff members bring their weekly pills “in bags for each day of the week,” or when they  go out for coffee to talk about their feelings and concerns.

The next step for PACT will be the biggest concern…


by Christina Roche

Are you tired for no reason? Do you fall asleep in class, at work, or in the car? You may be a victim of narcolepsy. According to WEB MD ” people with narcolepsy experience excessive daytime sleepiness and intermittent, uncontrollable episodes of falling asleep during the daytime.”

Carolyn Johnson shed some light on the issue and offered a bit of relief for those of you who experience periodic sleeping spells.

In her article she explains how narcolepsy is a disorder where the brain goes “awry”, the problem can also be linked to problems involving addiction and appetite. The brain chemical that is beginning to be linked to the problem is Orexin.

Studies have shown that Orexin is critical in regulating sleep and wake states as well as feeding behavior and reward processes. “Orexin deficiency results in narcolepsy in humans,dogs, and rodents…” (Pharmacological Reviews).

Dr. Tom Scammel of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is one of the doctors who has been studying narcolepsy and the effects of Orexin. In the lab they use unconventional methods such as tickling mice to keep them awake and feed them fruit loops.” (Carolynn Johnson).

When the mice were fed sugary snacks, their anticipation caused a loss of muscle control, which is known as cateplexy. Scammel used gene therapy to restore the Orexin level in mice and find their symptoms of narcolepsy to improve.

With this research pharmaceutical companies are trying to develop a drug that will actually block orexin to treat insomniacs. With gene therapy orexin can be restored to some level and help narcoleptic patients.

Other mice studies involving orexin showed that when orexin levels were blocked drug-seeking behaviors decreased. In a study published by Cell Metabolism it was found that when mice  were given more orexin helped them resist obesity.

Sleep disorders, addiction, and excessive appetites have potential to be normalized. With further orexin research narcoleptics everywhere may not have to go through the embarrassmentof falling asleep in public again.

by Christina Roche

“I don’t know, there is a need for technology…it’s getting harder to tell.”

said Carolyn Johnson when asked where Journalism is going right now. Journalist ask the question everyday and no one has an answer, not even close.

On Friday, December 4 I spoke with Johnson about her career and science as a whole. As a science writer for the Boston Globe she needs to break down complex ideas for her readers. She has done a great job with this and when I asked her if this was a challenge she did not seem to even think of it.

“I would’nt be as good if I were doing local news or politics…explaining is a skill I have.”

she said.

She has been around science all her life, her parents were scientist and she graduated from MIT with a degree in science writing. She now is a journalist at the science department of the Boston Globe. As shown in this blog, her stories focus on scientific breakthroughs such as my last blog post or scientific concerns like the Asian Longhorned Beetle story.

“hopefully people know the basics of science, I do not think they want or really need to know the complexities.”

she said. It is hard to be aware of science when there are so many studies and so many don’t work.

It has been discussed in some of my classes that environmental science stories will be the stories of the future. Johnson was taken aback my this statement.

“People are much more focused on local reports and they will be for a long time, they want stories that are life touching.”

she said.

Even though global warming is becoming a larger problem “the trends are slow.” There are “studies everyday, no one cares.” But a problem that is said to be growing may just become something that society will begin to focus on.

As for journalism, “it is very political and policy driven.” Johnson considers herself lucky to be where she is today. She has grown to seniority after being there for five years, which she sees as a good and bad thing. “There are less and less people on the bottom, everyone stays on the top and no one is coming in to take the bottom.” she said.

Science is here to stay no matter if people are aware of it or not. Journalism, may be a different story.

by Christina Roche

Imagine a way to cure diseases by the simple flick of a light switch. Imagine a way to read the brain by using light. Well, it may become a reality. On November 23 Carolyn Johnson shed some light on the brain study known as optogenetics.

According to Scientific America this new field of study allows scientists to control groups of neurons and individual neural circuits. Previously, it was only possible to study single nerve cells at a time, making it difficult to determine the function of the nerve.

To put it simply, the brain works optically. When one is sleeping there is hardly any activity and can be compared to starry night sky. When one is awake the brain can be compared to a million flashing lights (Scientific America). By testing and studying the different light patterns it would be possible to see brain circuits function.

An Active Brain

How will scientists be able to measure the light? According to  Impact Lab.co, scientist’s genetically engineer the neurons to make them sensitive to light and insert them through gene therapy. A fiber optic device is implanted into the brain. When the neuron is exposed to light “the protein triggers electrical activity within the cell that spreads to the next neuron in the circuit.”

Previously the technology had only been used on mice and fruit flies but has recently been tested in rhesus macaque monkeys. Everything has gone well so far, and scientists feel that they will be able to probe things like disease and emotion (Johnson,Carolyn).

The hard part is trying the technology on humans. Some say that if enough study is done on animals drugs can be created for diseases such as Parkinsons and would mean a safer options for testing on humans.

Gero Miesenbeck, a professor at Oxford University explained how the technology would help to create new drugs. If you identify the neurons that control appetite, you have a drug target; if you identify the neurons that regulate fear, you have a drug target

The video is a mouse who is under testing for optogenetics. When the light is turned on (scientists flick a switch that connects with the fiber optic cable going through the mouses brain&) the mouse runs in circles. By monitoring the brain activity and which neurons groups cause this.

by Christina Roche

Everyone who is from the Worcester area probably remember the scare of the Asian Long Horned Beetles. These beetles were feasting on maple trees all over the city. I experienced the after math first hand when I was driving and was forced to come to a screeching stop when I was met by a Maple Tree blocking the road. I found out later that the tree was a result of the beetles feasting.

On November 16 Carolyn Johnson wrote about a different species of beetle that people will welcome.  The “ally beetles” do not eat trees,they eat the enemy! Unfortunately they do not dine exclusively on the Asian Long Horns but they eat another bad bug. The adelgid, who eat hemlock trees.

Entomologist David Mausel has been collecting the friend beetles  since 2007 and distributing them around New England.  Now it’s time to see if there has been a decrease in the hemlock eating adelgid beetles.

Adelgid Beetle

The National Park Service calls the adelgid killers, bio control beetles. They have released around “350,000 beetles to treat 100,000 trees.”

According to the NPS the females adelgid leave bundles of wool that attach to the hemlock. In the wool are larvae that will hatch and begin to destroy!

David Mausel hopes that the beetles have not been released too late.  “It’s going to take time for the beetle numbers to add up., he said.

New England’s winters usually slow the adelgid growth because of the cold but if winters become warmer there may be a problem. The adelgid’s growth needs to slow down so the beetles can catch up.

Of course in the warmer states, there is no slowing down period. The good  news is, according  to Johnson, in areas where the ally beetles were released in 2003 the adelgid problem is almost gone. The bad news is that New England still has another five or six years to go until the problem subsides.

In the mean time,watch out for trees in the middle of the road!

by Christina Roche

Why are we obsessed with being afraid? We love going to scary movies that get our hearts in our chest. A whole genre of films are strictly based on scaring us. If we are not covering our eyes the entire time then the movie probably was not good.

Face it, our brains have a love hate relationship with fear. On Halloween day, Carolyn Johnson explained why some people just love being afraid.

The rush of hormones and the heart racing thrill produce a sensation of pleasure while another part of the brain kicks in to let people know they wont get hurt

The article made me think of how people love going on roller coasters. A part  of you says “no way!” while another part cannot wait for the thrill.

The Saw movies may just be some of the most gruesome movies of all time but they just keep coming out with new ones. The more ridiculous= adrenaline pumping through us. It’s amazing how hard it is to turn away when you want to  so bad!


Caution: Nightmares for months...

Now, scientists aren’t getting million dollar grants to study fear but they do study how the brain reacts to it. Fear is an interesting emotion that according to a 2006 study, people hardly see a facial expression for, reported Johnson.

In times where people had to run from predators like lions we needed that emotion. We needed to know to run away. Of course when we ran away and were safe the rush would immediately go away. Now we have things like deadlines. These deadlines put our fears at “a low chronic boil, this simmer.”

Honestly, deadlines may be some tough competition for those mountain lions.

Scientists have also found that we are quicker to pick out pictures of spiders and reptiles. This is because at one point they were a serious danger. The mind almost automatically identifies them as bad.

snakes So go get your favorite scary movie (after meeting all those deadlines) and dont forget…its not real!

by Christina Roche

“Carbon monoxide is an odorless,colorless, and toxic gas” with health benefits! According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this undetectable gas will kill you before you know it.

Carbon Monoxide is one of those things that we all fear. We have special alarms in our house to alert us of the deadly CO floating around. The Surgeon General alerts smokers that the CO in cigarettes is FATAL. Doctors cringe at treating poisoned patients that sometimes cannot be helped.

Well CO may not be our arch-enemy anymore…

On October 16, 2009 Carolyn Y. Johnson of the Boston Globe surprised readers by telling us that the alleged silent killer may actually be used as a medical treatment.

It may seem crazy but when used in small doses the gas has benefits in anything from infections to organ transplants. These results have been found to work mostly in animals but the experiments will begin to move on to people soon enough.  The National Institute of Health sees promise in the research. They have awarded a 1.4 million dollar grant to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to continue their experiments.

CO’s effect on the body is that it “inhibits the bloods ability to carry oxygen to body tissues including vital organs such as the heart and brain.” This has been a universal fact that has held up with all medical personnel for centuries.


Carbon monoxide blocks red blood cells from getting oxygen to the body.

Leo Otterbien, an associate professor at Beth Israel Deaconess, contradicted all CO beliefs a decade ago. As a graduate student, he actually found that the gas could be beneficial.

He was studying a critical protective enzyme that when broken down in the body, creates the byproduct carbon monoxide. He continued his research and found that breathing the gas for an hour at 5-10% fatal exposure “has beneficial effects in animals with a range of animals.” according to Johnson.

While it is not yet clear, the understanding is that the gas seems to help control inflammation , regulate cell death, and promote repair and renewal. The most extensive research has been done with organ transplants.  In one study on rats, CO helped to cut organ rejection.

This all sounds like a huge step for the medical field. It is, but like everything there are skeptics. Of course this research is feared and probably will always be feared because carbon monoxide is still deadly.

How can you control something so deadly? Something that people fear all their lives.

We will have to wait and see what comes of the new, maybe likable carbon monoxide. Not an enemy anymore but somewhat of an acquaintance…

Going to far?? We’ll see…