Category Archives: Health

Why medicinal plants could play an important role in treating malaria

Jeremiah Waweru Gathirwa, Kenya Medical Research Institute and Ruth Monyenye Nyang’acha,, Kenya Medical Research Institute

It will take effective prevention, accurate and timely diagnosis and treatment to successfully eliminate malaria. But none of this will help if the causative agents become resistant to the drugs used for treatment. The Conversation Africa’s Health and Medicine Editor Joy Wanja Muraya spoke to Dr. Jeremiah Waweru Gathirwa and Ruth Monyenye Nyang’acha researchers at the Kenya Medical Research Institute about the country’s work towards using medicinal plants as a potential anti-malarial drugs. The Conversation

What is the place of medicinal plants in Africa generally and in Kenya more particularly?

Most communities heavily rely on medicinal plants to prevent and treat diseases. About 80% of people in Africa depend on traditional medicine. Traditional healers prescribe medicinal plants to treat various illnesses. These plants are an accessible and affordable form of treatment for communities across the continent.

Medicinal plants have ingredients that can treat a condition or disease or can be used to manufacture useful drugs.

Herbal medicines are an important part of culture and traditions all over the continent and beyond. For centuries people have used their knowledge about the environment to treat various ailments. For example, the Chinese herbalists have used extracts of the Qinghao plant; Artemisia annua also known as sweet wormwood for malaria treatment for over 1,500 years.

The old-age use of herbal medicines is true of several communities in Kenya – where malaria is among the ailments they’ve treated.

Why is it important to consider medicinal plants as potential sources of anti-malarial drugs?

Malaria is preventable and treatable. But it’s a major public health problem in Kenya: there are an estimated 6.7 million new cases and 4,000 deaths each year.

It accounts for 15% of all out patient attendance in Kenya’s health facilities’ admissions.

Drug resistance has led to most of the malaria drugs in the market becoming ineffective in treating the disease. There is therefore an urgent and continuous call to search for new antimalarial agents.

Most of the drugs used to treat malaria are either derived from plants or are products of natural sources.

For example quinine, an antimalarial, comes from the medicinal plant Cinchona succirubra. Artemisinin is derived from Artemisia annua, another medicinal plant. These previous successes underscores the importance of medicinal plants in the fight against malaria and as a rich reservoir from which new antimalarial drugs can be developed.

Scientific evaluation for safety, efficacy and quality of medicinal plant preparations is important in safeguarding users. From our research, we found out that that medicinal plants are a potential source of new antimalarial drugs or preparations.

What did the study set to achieve? What were the findings?

The aim of the study was to identify and evaluate the safety of sampled medicinal plants in treating malaria. We selected 48 plants through interviews with traditional healers from malaria endemic zones in Kenya. The areas included Siaya in western Kenya, Mwea in Central Kenya and regions in the coastal belt.

These plants have historically been used by traditional health practitioners to treat malaria and we subjected them to laboratory tests in search of their anti parasitic properties.

We also investigated whether the plants were used singly or in combination with others. After testing all the selected plants for their antimalarial efficacy, we found the following six plant species to have the highest potential.

*Azadirachta indica

*Fagaropsis angolensis

*Rhus natalensis

*Zanthoxylum usambarense

*Cissampelos pareira

*Grewia plagiophylla

These medicinal plants depicted the highest ability to kill the malaria parasite.

We tested the effect of combining some plant extracts against a multi-drug resistant malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum and observed that in some cases the plants depicted higher efficacy when in combination as opposed to the single extracts.

Some of the tested plants showed mild toxicity against cultured mammalian cells. This is a test that involves growing human cells in the laboratory and exposing them to the plant extracts to test whether the extracts will have a negative effect to the growth of the cells as an indication of poisonous effect. All the other tested plant extracts were found to be safe.

The safety results of the medicinal plants were impressive because they showed that they were able to select the malaria parasites and effectively kill them.

What’s promising about your research?

The study identified plants that have medicinal qualities that kill the malaria causing parasite. Our study also confirmed that combining some medicinal plants with other species, as is done in traditional medicine, works.

The preliminary results showed that there’s great potential of developing safe and efficacious antimalarial medicines from the natural extract of local plants.

Adopting medicinal plants as sources of antimalarial treatment will be beneficial for Kenya because the drugs would be cheaper to produce, more cost effective for patients and easily accessible.

What are the next steps to making this a reality?

Kenya Medical Research Institute is working to develop a safe and effective antimalarial drug based on these natural products. We are working to establish appropriate dosages and mode of administration for effective treatment in humans. This is guided by reports from the laboratory and animal experiments.

A well conducted clinical trial of the best performing antimalarial preparations will be conducted prior to advocating the same for clinical application in primary health care.

We are also working with communities where these high value medicinal plants are found so as to encourage their preservation as sources of raw materials for the preparation of antimalarial medicines. We also hope to begin cultivating these plants as a future source of the raw material and as an income generating activity for the engaged communities.

Jeremiah Waweru Gathirwa, Researcher in Chemical Biology, Biochemistry, and Medicinal Chemistry, Kenya Medical Research Institute and Ruth Monyenye Nyang’acha,, Medical Parasitologist, Research Officer,, Kenya Medical Research Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Debunking myths about malaria and its vector, the mosquito

Tabitha Mwangi, Pwani University

Myths about diseases spread like wildfire. Malaria is a case in point. The Conversation Africa’s Health and Medicine Editor Joy Wanja Muraya asked Tabitha Mwangi to help sort out fact from fiction. The Conversation

Mosquitoes only bite at night.

Not entirely true.

There are two types of mosquitoes that bite mostly at night; the Anopheles mosquito that transmits malaria and it’s noisier cousin, the Culex mosquito which spreads lymphatic filariasis, – also known as elephantiasis – that presents as severe swelling in the arms, legs or genitals.

A year-long study in Western Kenya showed that 15% of the mosquitoes bite between 6pm to 9pm while the majority (85%) bite from 9pm till morning. Data from this study puts further emphasis on the value of sleeping under an insecticide treated bednet.

But there are other mosquitoes, such as the Aedes mosquitoes – easily identified by their zebra stripped legs – that are active mostly during the day. They spread viruses that cause dengue, zika, Chikugunya and rift valley fever.

The fact that this mosquito is active during the day makes it harder to control the diseases it spreads because bed nets aren’t an option.

Eating garlic before I sleep will repel mosquitoes.

There’s no scientific evidence to support this.

Garlic does produce a sulphur compound known as allicin which has some anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-parasitic activities. Researchers have looked at it’s impact on mice that have been infected with malaria. In mice, use of allicin leads to a reduction in the number of malaria parasites in the blood, the higher the dose of allicin, the longer the mice survived. But no research has been done on its effect on the human immune system.

Garlic oils are marketed as insect repellents but their efficacy is uncertain.

Mosquitoes like to bite women and children more than men.

This isn’t true, though there’s some evidence that they’re partial to pregnant women.

In The Gambia researchers found that pregnant women are twice as attractive to mosquitoes than non pregnant women.

The research involved 36 pregnant women and 36 women who weren’t pregnant. The two groups slept in separate huts under bed nets. In the morning, researchers collected and counted the mosquitoes found in the separate huts.

Twice as many mosquitoes were found in the huts in which the pregnant women had slept. There were two possible explanations for this. The first is that mosquitoes are attracted to carbon dioxide which pregnant women produce more of. In advanced pregnancy, women exhale 21% greater volumes than non pregnant women.

The second possible explanation is that pregnant women’s tummies are 0.7°C warmer than non pregnant women which could attract mosquitoes.

But there was an additional factor that the researchers suggested could have affected the results. Pregnant women – particularly women in advanced pregnancy – had to leave their huts at night more often than non-pregnant women because they need to urinate frequently.

Mosquitoes die after feeding.

This is not true. Male mosquitoes feed on sugary things while female mosquitoes need blood for their eggs to develop.

After feeding on blood, a female mosquito will rest to digest the blood and wait for the eggs to be ready.

The female mosquito rests for about two to three days then lays her eggs in water. After laying between 50 to 200 eggs, she then searches for another blood meal in order to lay another batch of eggs.

During her lifetime the female tries to lay as many eggs as she can which requires several blood meals.

In a laboratory, female mosquitoes can live for up to one month. But in natural conditions, few survive beyond one to two weeks.

Once you get malaria, you will never get it again.

Researchers have spent years monitoring people in malaria endemic areas to learn the patterns of immunity.

My PhD research involved collecting data on malaria from about 1,000 people in Coastal Kenya for two years. Children under five years had, on average, one clinical attack of malaria every year.

Malaria cases declined steeply after that and it was rare for adults who lived in this malaria endemic areas to have clinical attacks.

Other studies have shown that when highly immune adults spent long periods of time in places where they weren’t being bitten by infected mosquitoes, they could lose some of thatimmunity.

Scientists know that solid immunity to malaria only occurs in people who are constantly challenged. But it’s still not clear how this happens. This is one of the reasons why developing a malaria vaccine that works well has proved so difficult.

Mosquitoes only like the blood of humans.

This is true for some mosquitoes, but because female mosquitoes need a blood meal, most will take it from wherever they can find it. For example, livestock kept outside the homestead can attract mosquitoes. There’s even been a suggestion that cattle should be treated with insecticide as a malaria control strategy.

Tabitha Mwangi, Researcher, Senior Lecturer, Pwani University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How animals can help autistic children

Jacqueline Boyd, Nottingham Trent University

Daniel the “emotional support duck” is a pretty big deal, both in the animal and human world. His 15 minutes of fame began after he was spotted on a flight in the US – from Charlotte to Asheville, North Carolina – waddling around the plane in a nappy and some stylish red shoes. The Conversation

He is said to help his 37-year-old owner, Carla Fitzgerald, battle the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) she has had since an accident in 2013.

The use of “emotional support animals” has become big business recently – particularly in the US – and it’s not just ducks like Daniel that humans have claimed make a helpful addition to their day-to-day lives.

There have also been reports of emotional support pigs, cats, turkeys, chickens and even miniature horses. It seems that all types of animals are increasingly being used to assist patients – in the belief they can help people with autism, PTSD and other conditions function in their everyday lives.

But of course, despite this new wave of popularity, interacting with animals has long been considered to be good for people. There has also been issues raised with the number of animals used in this way – with some animal researchers raising animal welfare concerns. Therapists have also expressed their concern at the rise of “emotional support animals” – with many in the profession feeling not all of the animals used are legitimate “support animals”.

Loving pets

“Emotional support animal” or “pet” aside, it is maybe obvious that one of the main benefits that comes from a friendship with animals is that they are a source of “non-verbal” and “non-judgmental” companionship for both adults and children. These are friends who will be there for us day in day out. Friends who will always be up for a walk or a chin rub, or a game of fetch.

Many pet owners also describe the “social lubricant” effect of their pet – reporting lower incidences of loneliness and depression.

Dog owners typically – but not always – have higher levels of physical exercise than non-owners. And animal contact is often associated with exposure to the outdoors and natural stimuli – which is considered to be beneficial for human health and welbeing.

Novel situations and experiences also often result from animal interactions – which can create enjoyable and motivational learning opportunities for children.


Contact with animals is also widely regarded as an essential and natural part of childhood. I still remember my very first pet rabbit with deep affection. That rabbit “Fiver” – yes, I was a Watership Down fan – represented my first real responsibility for another living being. She was also a great friend and confidant.

And it is this realisation, that animals can be good for children’s development that explains why so many recent studies have focused on animal and children interactions.

This has led to animals increasingly being viewed and employed as useful partners in the educational and emotional development of children. There are now, for example, many schemes where children read to dogs to develop their reading skills with a canine “listener”.

Dogs can be great listeners and play pals.

But while dogs and horses are the most commonly used species for therapeutic and educational interactions, a range of other animals – ducks and miniature horses aside – have also been used successfully.

A recent study, for example, examined how interactions with classroom guinea pigs impacted on children with autism. And it was shown that for these children, spending time with the guinea pigs resulted in significantly improved social skills and motivation for learning.

Animal attributes

There are also other identified developmental benefits for children interacting with animals. Evidence suggests that children exposed to animals may have improved immune systems and a reduced incidence of allergies.

Therapy animals have also been shown to reduce pain in hospitalised children. And animals appear to enhance the social, emotional and cognitive development of children and aid the development of empathy. Exposure to companion animals has additionally been shown to boost levels of responsibility, self esteem and autonomy in children.

And then she said what?

But of course, despite the benefits to both children and adults, the welfare of animals used in therapeutic, educational or other interactions, is also important.

Swimming with dolphins and direct encounters with other exotic species has previously attracted attention for therapeutic value – especially for children with physical and intellectual disabilities – though recent gudielines now strongly advise against the use of such species. This is both due to animal welfare concerns and concerns for human participants.

This is why any animal involved in such interactions needs positive and ethical training, along with high health and welfare standards. All of which will help to make sure that the animals people are engaging with in these environments are happy animals – which can then in turn help to create happy humans.

Jacqueline Boyd, Lecturer in Animal Science, Nottingham Trent University

A possible clue into cancer recurrence

Breast cancer death rates overall have steadily declined since 1989, leading to an increased number of survivors. But while breast cancer survivors are grateful their bodies show no trace of the disease, they still face anxiety. Breast cancer can and does return, sometimes with a vengeance, even after being in remission for several years. The Conversation

By studying the “cannabilistic” tendency of cancer cells, my research team has made some progress in finding out why.

The chances of recurrence and disease outcome vary with cancer subtype. About one-third of patients diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, the most aggressive subtype, may experience a recurrence in another part of the body. This is called distant recurrence.

It has been difficult, if not impossible, to predict if and when the same cancer will recur – and to stop it. Recurrent disease may arise from just a single cancer cell that survived the initial treatment and became dormant. The dormancy allowed it to hide somewhere in the body, not growing or causing harm for an unpredictable amount of time.

Determining what puts these dormant cells to “sleep” and what provokes them to “wake up” and begin multiplying uncontrollably could lead to important new treatments to prevent a demoralizing secondary cancer diagnosis.

Recently, my research team and I uncovered several clues that might explain what triggers these breast cancer cells to go dormant and then “reawaken.” We showed that cell cannibalism is linked to dormancy.

How do bone stem cells affect breast cancer?

Breast cancer can recur in the breast or in other organs, such as the lungs and bone. Where breast cancer decides to grow depends largely on the microenvironment. This refers to the cells that surround it, including immune cells, cells comprising blood vessels, fibroblasts and the select proteins they produce, among other factors.

Over a century ago, a surgeon named Stephen Paget famously compared the organ-specific prevalence of cancer metastasis to seeds and soil. Because breast cancer often relapses in bones, in this metaphor, which still holds forth today, the bone marrow provides a favorable microenvironment (the “soil”) for dormant breast cancer cells (the “seeds”) to thrive.

Just as seeds need soil to provide an environment for growth, cancer cells need an environment to grow.

Thus, a substantial amount of recent work has involved trying to determine the role in cancer dormancy of a special type of cell, called mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). These are found in bone marrow.

MSCs in bone marrow are highly versatile. They are able to form bone, cartilage and fibrous tissue, as well as cells that support the immune system and formation of blood. They are also known to travel to sites of tissue injury and inflammation, where they aid in healing.

Breast cancer cells readily interact with MSCs if they meet in the bone marrow. They also readily interact if the breast cancer cells recruit them to the site of the primary tumor.

My research team and I recently focused on potential outcomes of these cellular interactions. We found an odd thing happens, which may provide insight into how these breast cancer cells hide for a long time.

In the laboratory setting, we produced breast tumor models containing MSCs. We also re-created the hostile conditions that naturally challenge developing tumors in patients, such as localized nutrient deficits caused by rapid growth of cancer cells and overcrowding.

We discovered that cancer cells under this duress become dormant after eating, or “cannibalizing,” the stem cells.

Our analysis provided compelling data
demonstrating that the cannibalistic breast cancer cells did not form tumors as rapidly as other cancer cells, and sometimes not at all. At the same time, they became highly resistant to chemotherapy and stresses imposed by nutrient deprivation.

Dormant cells are widely linked to recurrence. We hypothesize that cannibalism thus is linked to recurrence.

What is cellular cannibalism, and why is it important in cancer?

Cellular cannibalism, in general, describes a distinct phenomenon in which one cell engulfs and eliminates neighboring, intact cells.

The percentage of cancer cells that show cannibalistic activity is relatively low, but it does appear to increase in more aggressive tumors.

There are several reasons breast cancer cells would want to eat other cells, including other cancer cells. It provides them with a way to feed when nutrients are in short supply. It also provides them a way to eliminate the very immune cells that naturally stop cancer growth. Cell cannibalism might also allow cancer cells to inherit new genetic information and, therefore, new and advantageous traits.

Notably, in our study, cannibalistic breast cancer cells that ate the stem cells and entered dormancy began to produce an array of specific proteins. Many of these proteins are also secreted by normal cells that have permanently stopped dividing, or senescent cells, and have been collectively termed the senescence-associated secretory phenotype (or SASP). Although cellular senescence is a part of aging, we are now realizing that it is also important for a variety of normal bodily processes, development of embryos and injury repair in adults.

This suggests that although dormant cancer cells do not multiply rapidly or form detectable tumors, they are not necessarily sleeping. Instead, at times they might be actively communicating with each other and their microenvironment through the numerous proteins they manufacture.

Overall, this might be a clever way for dormant cancer cells to “fly under the radar” and, at the same time, modify their microenvironment, making it more suitable for them to grow in the future.

Can cell cannibalism be exploited for diagnosis and treatment?

Although our results are promising, it’s important to be cautious. While there appears to be a strong correlation between cell cannibalism and dormancy, for now we do not know if it is directly linked to cancer recurrence in patients. Studies are underway, however, to corroborate our findings.

Still, the fact that breast cancer cells cannibalize MSCs is intriguing. It provides an important foundation for developing new diagnostic tools and therapies. Indeed, we currently have several ways of applying our recent discoveries.

One exciting idea is to exploit the cannibalistic activity of cancer cells to feed them suicide genes or other toxic agents, using MSCs as a delivery vehicle, like a tumor-seeking missile.

Importantly, MSCs can be easily obtained from the body, expanded to large numbers in the laboratory, and put back into the patient. Indeed, they have already been used safely in clinical trials to treat a variety of diseases due to their ability to aid in tissue repair and regeneration.

A different avenue for drug development would involve keeping dormant cells in a harmless and nondividing state forever. It might also be possible to prevent cancer cells from eating the stem cells in the first place.

In our study, we were able to block cell cannibalism using a drug that targets a specific protein inside cancer cells. With this treatment approach, the cancer might essentially starve to death or be more easily killed by conventional therapies.

Thomas Bartosh, Assistant Professor, College of Medicine, Texas A&M University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Edible marijuana: What we need to know

Margie Skeer, Tufts University

Marijuana-infused foods – often called edibles – are becoming more and more popular in states such as Colorado, where recreational marijuana is sold. The Conversation

In the first quarter of 2014, the first year recreational sales were allowed in Colorado, edibles made up 30 percent of legal sales. By the third quarter of 2016, that grew to 45 percent.

Edibles come in a variety of forms, from candy and baked goods, to trail mix and even coffee or soda.

As a social and behavioral scientist who studies the prevention of adolescent substance initiation and misuse, the legalization of recreational marijuana has been on my mind a lot lately. The younger people are when they start using substances, the greater the risk for developing subsequent neurocognitive, mental health and further substance-related problems.

Marijuana-infused edibles raise a lot of concerns. Young children may accidentally eat edibles meant to look like candy or other foods, and adolescents may not think edibles are as risky as smoking marijuana.

Edible marijuana products are pictured at a medical marijuana dispensary in Denver.
AP Photo/Ed Andrieski

Concerns about edibles

Edibles are manufactured with varying levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana. They can take the form of almost any type of food, most notably candy and baked goods.

When products are shaped like candy, there is a concern that children will accidentally ingest them. They may mistake these marijuana-infused products for regular food, as they may not be able to read the labels and markings indicating that the products contain THC, or may not understand what the labels actually mean.

A recent retrospective study examined unintentional exposure to marijuana among children who were treated at a children’s hospital and regional poison center in Colorado between 2009 and 2015, the year after it became legal for recreational marijuana to be sold in the state.

Findings indicated a five-fold increase in the number of children under 10 who were exposed to marijuana, from nine cases in 2009 to 47 cases in 2015. The poison center saw an average increase of 34 percent, while there was an average increase of 19 percent for the rest of the country.

Edibles were implicated in over half of the exposures, which included baked goods, candy, and popcorn products.

Teens may accidentally ingest edibles as well. In these cases, though, the concern is that teens may give edibles to their peers without telling them what is in the product.

Risk perception of edibles is lower

In 2015, only 12.3 percent of high school seniors believed that trying marijuana once or twice was harmful (down from 18.5 percent in 2009). Less than one in three believed smoking marijuana regularly to be harmful, down from 52.4 percent in 2009.

My professional opinion is that marijuana-infused edibles will continue to push down this trend in perceived risk among adolescents, as edibles may appear much less risky than smokable forms. In other words, it is a much shorter leap from not using marijuana at all to eating an edible product to get high, compared to the leap between no use and smoking the drug for the first time through a joint or a bong.

Additionally, edibles make it significantly easier for those who are underage to use marijuana covertly, which may make it more appealing. This could potentially increase frequency of use.

The risk of getting caught using marijuana at home or at school may be lower if an adolescent is eating a cookie or candy infused with THC than smoking the drug. That could make this mode of use appealing for teens who may otherwise abstain out of the fear of repercussions associated with “smelling like pot”.

Recent qualitative research found that that some teens did use edibles in school specifically for this reason. Moreover, some of the females reported that they found edibles appealing because using the drug in this manner made them less likely to appear in public as a “marijuana user”.

How much THC is in that cookie?

Dosing is another concern. Colorado and Washington state have set a limit of 10 milligrams per individual serving, while Oregon and Alaska set a limit of five milligrams for an individual serving. In theory, regulations surrounding dosing in specific milligram increments would be helpful in allowing consumers to self-regulate how much they ingest.

The size of the dose is one issue, but how it is administered is another. If a drug is inhaled, it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and then goes to the brain. This is the fastest way of administering a drug.

The slowest mode of administration is ingestion, such as through pills or food. The drug enters the bloodstream through the lining of the stomach and small intestine, and then has to travel to the brain. This means it can take about 30-60 minutes to feel the effects. Eating a product with a drug in it may take even longer, because the body has to digest it as food first before the substance gets into the lining of the stomach.

A person who is not aware of this delay might eat more after not initially feeling the effects, thinking that the drug will take effect faster, not recognizing the potential harms associated with the increased dosage.

There are also different types of marijuana, specifically sativa and indica. Sativa has a more stimulating, energetic effect, whereas indica has more of a psychoactive and sedating effect. There are also hybrids of the two, if users are interested in a combination of the different effects.

However, research on marijuana has been limited, so not much has been examined with the different types and different strains, especially among adolescents, making it a challenge to understand the full picture.

Policies regarding edibles

Like all marijuana, cannabis-infused edibles are not regulated by the FDA. At the moment, polices and regulations about edibles are being drafted by states that are voting to legalize recreational marijuana.

The states with the longest history of legalized recreational marijuana, Colorado and Washington, have the most extensive policies surrounding edibles. As problems associated with the recreational use of marijuana have surfaced, these policies have – and continue to – change.

For example, in response to the increased number of children being admitted to hospitals as a result of ingesting edible marijuana, Colorado enacted a policy in October 2016 requiring that a universal symbol be put on all edible marijuana products to make it clear that they contain THC. In addition, the word “candy” is not allowed on edible marijuana packaging, and manufacturing edibles in shapes that are appealing to children (such as gummy bears) also are banned.

Washington has strict and extensive policies around edibles, including explicit language that needs to be put on labels and packaging. The state also bans images on packaging that would appeal to young children, such as cartoons and toys, as well as edible candy that would be most appealing to young people, such as gummy bears and jelly beans.

California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada all voted to legalize recreational marijuana in the 2016 election.

California’s Prop. 64, the ballot proposition for recreational marijuana restricts edibles with a 10 milligram portion size requirement, and additional requirements that packaging be childproof and, as with other states, not to appeal to children.

Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada are drafting legislation to regulate recreational sales of marijuana, including edibles.

Where do we go from here?

As a professional in this field, I understand the desire to offer multiple routes of administration of marijuana, particularly for those who are using it for medical reasons.

However, I believe that edible marijuana, especially in forms that are appealing to young people, is extremely problematic.

Adolescent substance misuse prevention professionals have their work cut out for them, as prevention efforts will have to specifically target marijuana edibles moving forward. Additionally, it is up to policymakers to do everything in their power to make it harder for those who are under 21 to acquire and also consume edible marijuana. This will require a lot of time preparing before the policies go into effect.

Margie Skeer, Assistant Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine, Tufts University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is there really a link between owning a cat and mental illness?

Francesca Solmi, UCL and James Kirkbride, UCL

Over the past few years, cats have increasingly attracted media attention due to a number of scientific studies reporting that a Toxoplasma Gondii (T. Gondii) infection is linked with mental health issues, including schizophrenia, suicide and intermittent rage disorder. Since domestic cats are the primary hosts of T. Gondii – that is, they provide an environment within which this parasite can reproduce – it is often speculated that cat ownership may put people at increased risk of mental illness, by exposing them to it. The Conversation

However, only a handful of small studies have found evidence to support a link between owning a cat and psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia. And most of these investigations have serious limitations. For instance, they relied on small samples, did not specify how participants were selected, and did not appropriately account for the presence of missing data and alternative explanations. This can often lead to results that are born out of chance or are biased.

To tackle these limitations, we conducted a study using data from approximately 5,000 children who took part in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children between 1991 and 1992. Since then, these children and their families have been followed up to gather information on their health, as well as on their demographic, social and economic circumstances.

So, unlike previous studies, we were able to follow people over time, from birth to late adolescence, and address a number of the limitations of previous research, including controlling for alternative explanations (such as income, occupation, ethnicity, other pet ownership and over-crowding) and taking into account missing data.

T. Gondii is found in domestic cats.
Kateryna Kon/

We studied whether mothers who owned a cat while pregnant; when the child was four years old; and 10 years old, were more likely to have children who reported psychotic symptoms, such as paranoia or hallucinations, at age 13 and 18 years of age. Although most people who experience psychotic symptoms in adolescence will not develop psychotic disorders later in life, these symptoms often indicate an increased risk for such disorders and other mental illnesses, including depression.

So are cats bad for your mental health? Probably, not.

We found that children who were born and raised in households that included cats at any time period – that is, pregnancy, early and late childhood – were not at a higher risk of having psychotic symptoms when they were 13 or 18 years old. This finding in a large, representative sample did not change when we used statistical techniques to account for missing data and alternative explanations. This means that it is unlikely that our results are explained by chance or are biased.

While this finding is reassuring, there is evidence linking exposure to T. Gondii in pregnancy to a risk of miscarriage and stillbirth, or health problems in the baby. In our study, we could not directly measure exposure to T. Gondii, so we recommend that pregnant women should continue to avoid handling soiled cat litter and other sources of T. Gondii infection, such as raw or undercooked meats, or unwashed fruit and vegetables. That said, data from our study suggests that owning a cat during pregnancy or in early childhood does not pose a direct risk for offspring having psychotic symptoms later in life.

Francesca Solmi, Research Associate, UCL and James Kirkbride, Reader, UCL

What do we know about marijuana’s medical benefits?

Currently 25 states and the District of Columbia have medical cannabis programs. On Nov. 8, Arkansas, Florida and North Dakota will vote on medical cannabis ballot initiatives, while Montana will vote on repealing limitations in its existing law. The Conversation

We have no political position on cannabis legalization. We study the cannabis plant, also known as marijuana, and its related chemical compounds. Despite claims that cannabis or its extracts relieve all sorts of maladies, the research has been sparse and the results mixed. At the moment, we just don’t know enough about cannabis or its elements to judge how effective it is as a medicine.

What does the available research suggest about medical cannabis, and why do we know so little about it?

The jury is still out on marijuana’s medical benefits.
Thomas Hawk/Flickr, CC BY-NC

What are researchers studying?

While some researchers are investigating smoked or vaporized cannabis most are looking at specific cannabis compounds, called cannabinoids.

From a research standpoint, cannabis is considered a “dirty” drug because it contains hundreds of compounds with poorly understood effects. That’s why researchers tend to focus on just one cannabinoid at a time. Only two plant-based cannabinoids, THC and cannabidiol, have been studied extensively, but there could be others with medical benefits that we don’t know about yet.

THC is the main active component of cannabis. It activates cannabinoid receptors in the brain, causing the “high” associated with cannabis, as well as in the liver, and other parts of the body. The only FDA-approved cannabinoids that doctors can legally prescribe are both lab produced drugs similar to THC. They are prescribed to increase appetite and prevent wasting caused by cancer or AIDS.

Cannabidiol (also called CBD), on the other hand, doesn’t interact with cannabinoid receptors. It doesn’t cause a high. Seventeen states have passed laws allowing access to CBD for people with certain medical conditions.

Our bodies also produce cannabinoids, called endocannabinoids. Researchers are creating new drugs that alter their function, to better understand how cannabinoid receptors work. The goal of these studies is to discover treatments that can use the body’s own cannabinoids to treat conditions such as chronic pain and epilepsy, instead of using cannabis itself.

Cannabis is promoted as a treatment for many medical conditions. We’ll take a look at two, chronic pain and epilepsy, to illustrate what we actually know about its medical benefits.

Is it a chronic pain treatment?

Research suggests that some people with chronic pain self-medicate with cannabis. However, there is limited human research on whether cannabis or cannabinoids effectively reduce chronic pain.

Research in people suggest that certain conditions, such as chronic pain caused by nerve injury, may respond to smoked or vaporized cannabis, as well as an FDA-approved THC drug. But, most of these studies rely on subjective self-reported pain ratings, a significant limitation. Only a few controlled clinical trials have been run, so we can’t yet conclude whether cannabis is an effective pain treatment.

An alternative research approach focuses on drug combination therapies, where an experimental cannabinoid drug is combined with an existing drug. For instance, a recent study in mice combined a low dose of a THC-like drug with an aspirin-like drug. The combination blocked nerve-related pain better than either drug alone.

In theory, the advantage to combination drug therapies is that less of each drug is needed, and side effects are reduced. In addition, some people may respond better to one drug ingredient than the other, so the drug combination may work for more people. Similar studies have not yet been run in people.

Well-designed epilepsy studies are badly needed

Despite some sensational news stories and widespread speculation on the internet, the use of cannabis to reduce epileptic seizures is supported more by research in rodents than in people.

In people the evidence is much less clear. There are many anecdotes and surveys about the positive effects of cannabis flowers or extracts for treating epilepsy. But these aren’t the same thing as well-controlled clinical trials, which can tell us which types of seizure, if any, respond positively to cannabinoids and give us stronger predictions about how most people respond.

While CBD has gained interest as a potential treatment for seizures in people, the physiological link between the two is unknown. As with chronic pain, the few clinical studies have been done included very few patients. Studies of larger groups of people can tell us whether only some patients respond positively to CBD.

We also need to know more about the cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body, what systems they regulate, and how they could be influenced by CBD. For instance, CBD may interact with anti-epileptic drugs in ways we are still learning about. It may also have different effects in a developing brain than in an adult brain. Caution is particularly urged when seeking to medicate children with CBD or cannabis products.

Cannabis research is hard

Well-designed studies are the most effective way for us to understand what medical benefits cannabis may have. But research on cannabis or cannabinoids is particularly difficult.

Cannabis and its related compounds, THC and CBD, are on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which is for drugs with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” and includes Ecstasy and heroin.

In order to study cannabis, a researcher must first request permission at the state and federal level. This is followed by a lengthy federal review process involving inspections to ensure high security and detailed record-keeping.

In our labs, even the very small amounts of cannabinoids we need to conduct research in mice are highly scrutinized. This regulatory burden discourages many researchers.

Designing studies can also be a challenge. Many are based on users’ memories of their symptoms and how much cannabis they use. Bias is a limitation of any study that includes self-reports. Furthermore, laboratory-based studies usually include only moderate to heavy users, who are likely to have formed some tolerance to marijuana’s effects and may not reflect the general population. These studies are also limited by using whole cannabis, which contains many cannabinoids, most of which are poorly understood.

Placebo trials can be a challenge because the euphoria associated with cannabis makes it easy to identify, especially at high THC doses. People know when they are high.

Another type of bias, called expectancy bias, is a particular issue with cannabis research. This is the idea that we tend to experience what we expect, based on our previous knowledge. For example, people report feeling more alert after drinking what they are told is regular coffee, even if it is actually decaffeinated. Similarly, research participants may report pain relief after ingesting cannabis, because they believe that cannabis relieves pain.

The best way to overcome expectancy effects is with a balanced placebo design, in which participants are told that they are taking a placebo or varying cannabis dose, regardless of what they actually receive.

Studies should also include objective, biological measures, such as blood levels of THC or CBD, or physiological and sensory measures routinely used in other areas of biomedical research. At the moment, few do this, prioritizing self-reported measures instead.

Cannabis isn’t without risks

Abuse potential is a concern with any drug that affects the brain, and cannabinoids are no exception. Cannabis is somewhat similar to tobacco, in that some people have great difficulty quitting. And like tobacco, cannabis is a natural product that has been selectively bred to have strong effects on the brain and is not without risk.

Although many cannabis users are able to stop using the drug without problem, 2-6 percent of users have difficulty quitting. Repeated use, despite the desire to decrease or stop using, is known as cannabis use disorder.

As more states more states pass medical cannabis or recreational cannabis laws, the number of people with some degree of cannabis use disorder is also likely to increase.

It is too soon to say for certain that the potential benefits of cannabis outweigh the risks. But with restrictions to cannabis (and cannabidiol) loosening at the state level, research is badly needed to get the facts in order.

Steven Kinsey, Assistant Professor of Psychology, West Virginia University and Divya Ramesh, Research Associate, University of Connecticut

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Coupon Networks Are Saving People Hundreds per Month On Groceries

One network got me $50 worth of free pasta. Another gave me all the laundry detergent I needed for a year. Yet another opened me up to the awesome world of free pudding cups. Had I tapped into the world’s largest underground food network?

Imagine if you had unfettered access to hundreds of coupons every month, and using each coupon every time you shopped could turn a $200/week grocery bill into a $50/week grocery bill. Would you still pay full price for Gatorade? Vegetables? Tide? Kleenex? What about that kitty litter bill, or the trash bags for your household trash bins?

If you’re one of the millions of people in America having trouble keeping up with the bills, this is the answer to your prayers: coupon networks.

Coupon networks offer a trove of up-to-date, valuable coupons for every day items you look for every time you go grocery shopping, and they’re growing fast. One network offered me free laundry soap for an entire year, and that wasn’t even the best part. They also offered me coupons that amounted to thousands of dollars in savings just for being a free member.

These networks don’t come without their pitfalls, but they are few and far between. The only downside I’ve managed to come across is that the offers only last a short time, such as a week or two, sometimes a month to six months, but usually on the short side. That’s why it’s important to check them out sooner rather than later and don’t procrastinate if you want to save a lot of money on your grocery shopping.

Below are a few of the best coupon networks and coupon offers that I’ve found. All of them are free to sign up:

Grocery Coupon Network
$250 Grocery Gift Card
$100 in Beauty Samples
$100 Variety Grocery Samples
$1000 Superstore Gift Card
Costco Gift Card – One Field
CoolSurveys – $1500 Grocery Gift Card – (Mobile Users Only)
Clip n’ Go Coupons – Grocery Giveaway

With that list, I’ve saved over $600 a month on groceries!

Finding solitude in an era of perpetual contact

Being alone has many benefits. It grants freedom in thought and action. It boosts creativity. It offers a terrain for the imagination to roam. Solitude also enriches our connections with others by providing perspective, which enhances intimacy and fosters empathy.

To be sure, solitude is not always experienced positively. At times, and for certain people, it can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. In that sense, solitude is a two-sided coin, as is the case with other necessities in life, like food. As with food, we can benefit from being mindful of the quantity and quality of solitude we experience in daily life.

This is true of both deliberate solitude and those moments of being alone that are inadvertently stumbled upon. Both varieties of solitude have the capacity to deliver the benefits mentioned above, but the latter may be heading toward the endangered species list, at least for some folks.

In social psychology, solitude has traditionally been defined and measured as being physically alone, or in some cases not engaging with people who are also physically present. Since that foundation was laid, times have changed, as have the possibilities for “being with” others.

You are probably familiar with the old philosophical question: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” After combing through the scholarly research on solitude last summer, I came up with a new version: “If a person is alone in the forest when a tree falls, but they don’t notice it because they’re texting, does it still count as solitude?”

Did you notice, or were you too busy texting?
nahidv/flickr, CC BY

What is it to be alone?

With mobile and social media, we now carry our networks around with us, and new possibilities for perpetual contact pose problems for solitude – not only for how it is experienced, but also for how it is studied. If all of our old ideas for thinking about and measuring solitude no longer apply, then we lack the scientific tools needed to further our understanding of it. Without accounting for the ways people connect in the digital realm through the Internet and mobile media, we have no way of knowing how much solitude people get, how they benefit or suffer from it, or different ways in which it is experienced. When I finished reading up on solitude last summer, I was left with the feeling that the study of it had hit a dead end, and was ready for a reboot.

That reboot began last fall when MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s book “Reclaiming Conversation” was published. Turkle’s book has garnered both high praise and rebuke for its critical view of digital media and the degradation of face-to-face conversation. Setting that debate aside for the moment, the book also makes some points that help push the conversation about solitude into the digital era.

One of Turkle’s arguments is that being able to connect anytime-anywhere means never having to experience unwanted solitude (see also Louis C.K.’s comedic rant on the topic). This is a problem because, as Turkle puts it, “In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation.” For her, the fundamental problem is how technology, especially mobile communication, makes it easy for us to avoid mundane boredom in daily life. Beyond boredom, we can talk about some other key reasons why someone might opt for a smartphone over their own thoughts during periods of downtime – and why there is a greater need for deliberate solitude for those interested in the benefits of being alone.

‘Work anywhere’ – but you’d better be working 24/7!
Working person on cliff via

Always connected, and more automatic

We live in a time when expectations for being accessible are high. Sociologist Rich Ling attributes this to mobile communication’s transition from something new into a taken-for-granted assumption, like telling time. When mobile communication was a novelty, it was special to be able to connect “on the fly.” No longer. Ling’s theoretical argument about high expectations of accessibility is well-supported by a recent survey in the U.S. in which 80 percent of teens reported checking their phone hourly, and 72 percent said they feel the need to respond to messages immediately.

As mobile communication becomes embedded at the social level, it also moves toward the background of cognitive processing. People do not put as much conscious thought into their use of common artifacts, such as watches, staplers, and now mobile devices, when they become a taken-for-granted part of everyday life. In fact, habitual (i.e., less conscious) mobile phone use is part of the explanation for why people text while driving.

Mobile communication is now more like a second skin than a new innovation. When it beckons, people respond, often automatically. Even when our mobile devices do nothing at all, we sometimes automatically react to “phantom vibrations.” Mobile habits can also be triggered by emotional states and the environment.

A few years ago I was part of a small group visiting a primate sanctuary near Miami. The gimmick was that the monkeys roamed free while the humans were caged. The management set us free for a few moments, and we found ourselves completely covered in spider monkeys who wanted to make friends (friends who had nuts and raisins). Our initial impulse was to pull out our mobile devices to take photos and video. We didn’t even think about it.

If people turn to these devices without thinking during life’s amazing moments, it makes sense that we would do the same during those moments of unintended solitude. This tendency is exacerbated by the pull of expectations to be accessible anytime and anywhere. I am not arguing that everyone needs more solitude in their life. However, with unintentional solitude no longer mandatory, it might be a good idea for us to direct more thought into intentionally carving out times, places, and activities for being alone, not just in the realm of atoms and molecules, but in the realm of bits and bytes as well.

The Conversation

Scott Campbell, Constance F. and Arnold C. Pohs Professor of Telecommunication, University of Michigan

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why it’s impossible to actually be a vegetarian

In case you’ve forgotten the section on the food web from high school biology, here’s a quick refresher.

Plants make up the base of every food chain of the food web (also called the food cycle). Plants use available sunlight to convert water from the soil and carbon dioxide from the air into glucose, which gives them the energy they need to live. Unlike plants, animals can’t synthesize their own food. They survive by eating plants or other animals.

Clearly, animals eat plants. What’s not so clear from this picture is that plants also eat animals. They thrive on them, in fact (just Google “fish emulsion”). In my new book, “A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism,” I call it the transitivity of eating. And I argue that this means one can’t be a vegetarian.

Chew on this

I’ll pause to let the collective yowls of both biologists and (erstwhile) vegetarians subside.

A transitive property says that if one element in a sequence relates in a certain way to a second element, and the second element relates in the same way to a third, then the first and third elements relate in the same way as well.

Take the well-worn trope “you are what you eat.” Let’s say instead that we are “who” we eat. This makes the claim more personal and also implies that the beings who we make our food aren’t just things.

How our food lives and dies matters. If we are who we eat, our food is who our food eats, too. This means that we are who our food eats in equal measure.

Plants acquire nutrients from the soil, which is composed, among other things, of decayed plant and animal remains. So even those who assume they subsist solely on a plant-based diet actually eat animal remains as well.

This is why it’s impossible to be a vegetarian.

For the record, I’ve been a “vegetarian” for about 20 years and nearly “vegan” for six. I’m not opposed to these eating practices. That isn’t my point. But I do think that many “vegetarians” and “vegans” could stand to pay closer attention to the experiences of the beings who we make our food.

For example, many vegetarians cite the sentience of animals as a reason to abstain from eating them. But there’s good reason to believe that plants are sentient, too. In other words, they’re acutely aware of and responsive to their surroundings, and they respond, in kind, to both pleasant and unpleasant experiences.

Check out the work of plant scientists Anthony Trewavas, Stefano Mancuso, Daniel Chamowitz and František Baluška if you don’t believe me. They’ve shown that plants share our five senses – and have something like 20 more. They have a hormonal information-processing system that’s homologous to animals’ neural network. They exhibit clear signs of self-awareness and intentionality. And they can even learn and teach.

It’s also important to be aware that “vegetarianism” and “veganism” aren’t always eco-friendly. Look no further than the carbon footprint of your morning coffee, or how much water is required to produce the almonds you enjoy as an afternoon snack.

A word for the skeptics

I suspect how some biologists may respond: first, plants don’t actually eat since eating involves the ingestion – via chewing and swallowing – of other life forms. Second, while it’s true that plants absorb nutrients from the soil and that these nutrients could have come from animals, they’re strictly inorganic: nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and trace amounts of other elements. They’re the constituents of recycled minerals, devoid of any vestiges of animality.

As for the first concern, maybe it would help if I said that both plants and animals take in, consume or make use of, rather than using the word “eat.” I guess I’m just not picky about how I conceptualize what eating entails. The point is that plants ingest carbon dioxide, sunlight, water and minerals that are then used to build and sustain their bodies. Plants consume inasmuch as they produce, and they aren’t the least bit particular about the origins of the minerals they acquire.

With respect to the second concern, why should it matter that the nutrients drawn by plants from animals are inorganic? The point is that they once played in essential role in facilitating animals’ lives. Are we who we eat only if we take in organic matter from the beings who become our food? I confess that I don’t understand why this should be. Privileging organic matter strikes me as a biologist’s bias.

Then there’s the argument that mineral recycling cleanses the nutrients of their animality. This is a contentious claim, and I don’t think this is a fact of the matter. It goes to the core of the way we view our relationship with our food. You could say that there are spiritual issues at stake here, not just matters of biochemistry.

Changing how we view our food

Let’s view our relationship with our food in a different way: by taking into account the fact that we’re part of a community of living beings – plant and animal – who inhabit the place that we make our home.

We’re eaters, yes, and we’re also eaten. That’s right, we’re part of the food web, too! And the well-being of each is dependent on the well-being of all.

From this perspective, what the self-proclaimed “farmosopher” Glenn Albrecht calls sumbiotarianism (from the Greek word sumbioun, to live together) has clear advantages.

Sumbioculture is a form of permaculture, or sustainable agriculture. It’s an organic and biodynamic way of farming that’s consistent with the health of entire ecosystems.

Sumbiotarians eat in harmony with their ecosystem. So they embody, literally, the idea that the well-being of our food – hence, our own well-being – is a function of the health of the land.

In order for our needs to be met, the needs and interests of the land must come first. And in areas where it’s prohibitively difficult to acquire the essential fats that we need from pressed oils alone, this may include forms of animal use – for meat, manure and so forth.

Simply put, living sustainably in such an area – whether it’s New England or the Australian Outback – may well entail relying on animals for food, at least in a limited way.

All life is bound together in a complex web of interdependent relationships among individuals, species and entire ecosystems. Each of us borrows, uses and returns nutrients. This cycle is what permits life to continue. Rich, black soil is so fertile because it’s chock full of the composted remains of the dead along with the waste of the living.

Indeed, it’s not uncommon for indigenous peoples to identify veneration of their ancestors and of their ancestral land with the celebration of the life-giving character of the earth. Consider this from cultural ecologist and Indigenous scholar-activist Melissa Nelson:

The bones of our ancestors have become the soil, the soil grows our food, the food nourishes our bodies, and we become one, literally and metaphorically, with our homelands and territories.

You’re welcome to disagree with me, of course. But it’s worth noting that what I propose has conceptual roots that may be as old as humanity itself. It’s probably worth taking some time to digest this.

The Conversation

Andrew Smith, Assistant Professor of English and Philosophy, Drexel University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.