Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hormone clue could lead to pre-natal screening for autism

This is ridiculous. Few people would doubt that women are better communicators. Their verbal skills are certainly higher. So all that the report below shows is that the more male-like someone is in terms of hormones, the less good they are as communicators and the more they have male-pattern memories. But that is a long way from pointing to autism. Note that none of the kids were actually autistic!

Babies exposed to high levels of testosterone in the womb have a higher risk of developing autistic traits, research has revealed. The link to the male hormone could provide a way to test unborn babies for the condition and has added a new dimension to the debate about the ethics of screening. The research suggests than abnormally high levels of testosterone in the womb could be one of the triggers for autistic traits to develop up to ten years later.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the world's leading experts on autism, measured the level of testosterone in the amniotic fluid of 235 pregnant women. Their children were later given a series of tests. When they reached eight their mothers filled in questionnaires designed to pick up autistic traits. These included whether the child preferred solitary or social activities and if he or she was good at remembering telephone numbers and number plates.

Those who had been exposed to higher concentrations of the male hormone had higher scores, and high exposure accounted for 20 per cent of the variability in measures of autistic traits. The findings were published yesterday in the British Journal of Psychology.

Prof Baron-Cohen, of Cambridge University, said the children did not have a diagnosis of autism but the research had found a correlation between testosterone produced by the unborn babies and the number of traits displayed. He said the research looked at causal factors which meant it was a long way from a screening test. But he added: `Our ongoing collaboration with the Biobank in Denmark will enable us to test that link in the future.' The prospect of pre-natal testing raised concerns that it could lead to parents feeling pressured to terminate an affected pregnancy.

A spokesman from Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales said: `The debate prompted by the possibility of genetic testing for autism in the womb needs to be channelled creatively. `What our society is contemplating are the first steps of a truly revolutionary and inhuman path. `The only way out is to rediscover the fundamental dignity and value of every human life from its first beginnings. `Without this firm moral bedrock, we are in grave danger of sliding inexorably towards a new eugenics.'

A National Autistic Society spokesman said: `Screening to identify autism at an early stage has the potential to radically improve the quality of life if the right environment, education and support can be put in place as soon as possible. `However, it is crucial that early screening or testing for autism does not lead to increased stigmatisation or discrimination. `Many people with autism and their families are understandably worried about the impact genetic or pre-natal testing may have on their lives and on public perception of the condition in the future.'


Mobile phone radiation has no short-term impact on children - German study

RADIATION from mobile phones has no short-term health impact on children and teenagers, a new study claims. The study - by the German government - measured radiation levels in over 3000 youngsters aged eight to 17 over a 24-hour period. It showed there was no direct link between exposure to radiation and health complaints such as headaches and dizziness.

Nevertheless, radiation may still result in longer-term health risks for children as their nervous and immune systems are not fully developed, the country's Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) said in a statement. "We still do not know what long-term effects the electromagnetic fields from mobile phones have on children and youngsters," a BfS spokesman said.

As a precautionary measure, the BfS urges caution in the use of wireless technology, especially for children. Half of eight to 12-year-olds and 90 per cent of the teenagers said they owned a mobile phone.


Are Restaurants Really Supersizing America? Nope

There are only so many stop-the-presses moments you get in a year, but it's not a week into 2009 and we've already encountered one. U.S. News & World Report tipped us off to a study out of Northwestern University and UC-Berkeley that backs up exactly what we've been saying all along: There is "no evidence of a causal link between restaurants and obesity."

Assistant professors of economics David A. Matsa (Northwestern) and Michael Anderson (Berkeley) released a report titled "Are Restaurants Really Supersizing America?" after looking at whether there is a causal connection between access to restaurants and the prevalence of obesity. In other words: Do people who live near (and eat at) restaurants have a greater risk of being fat than people who don't? Survey says ... Nope. Rather, the evidence suggests that people who overindulge when they go out to eat are taking in too many calories for other reasons, or that they're offsetting those calories by eating less during the rest of the day.

Matsa and Anderson go on to say that while taxing food might change where people eat, it won't change anyone's tendency to overeat. So messing with restaurant menu labeling, outlawing burger joints, and imposing "fat taxes" and other consumer-unfriendly penalties on ordinary people isn't going to dissuade them from eating what they want. And it isn't going to make anyone thin.

Finally, if proponents of the ill-conceived fast food ban in inner-city Los Angeles feel their ears burning, it may be due to this simple assessment of what's going on in public-health circles -- where food activists who love the sound of their own voices may just be wasting their breath: "[P]olicies targeted at restaurants are unlikely to lower the prevalence of obesity. Nevertheless, such policies have recently been put forward in many jurisdictions."

We're still waiting for an econometric study that looks for causal connections between obese Americans and their homes' distance from gyms, bike paths, ski slopes, and swim clubs. Now there's a result that might stop the presses.


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