Archive | June 2014

Autistic or anorexic, what’s the difference?

I read a fascinating article today that brought to mind a lot of questions about the nature of mental illness. The article’s title, “What it’s like to have anorexia and autism” featured on slate.com was so bewildering to me I just had to click on it. It is presented in an interview format, and features a woman named Sharon DaVanport who was diagnosed with anorexia when she was 17. At 42, she was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, which is a higher-functioning type of autism. This made sense to Davanport, since her weight was not due to body-image, but rather to an aversion to food on a sensory level. She would be repulsed by the way some foods smelled or felt, to the point where she could not eat. This might not even be that uncommon of a case, as the slate article cites an article exploring a possible genetic link between autism and anorexia.

But when I first read this article, my initial thought was, but is this really still anorexia? Isn’t this more of a side effect of an entirely different disorder? The way DaVanport’s anorexia is described in the interview does fit in at all with the image I have of anorexia in my head. Anorexia has always been portrayed as an obsession to be thin that results in the individual being unable to view themselves as they truly are. For example, and woman with all her rib bones visible still believing she has love handles. But since DaVanport’s weight had nothing to do with a desire to be thin, how does it fit in? It does not compute into the box I had built around the idea of anorexia.

According to allianceforeatingdisorders.com the DSM-V (the go-to guide for diagnosing all mental diseases. Helpful tip: if you happen across a copy do not try to diagnose yourself. This will only end badly for you and ironically, your mental health) criteria for diagnosing anorexia nervosa include restriction of energy intake relative to requirements leading to a significantly low body weight in the context of age, sex, developmental trajectory, and physical health. Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though underweight.

I've got your spectrum right here. Photo credit F.RdeC

I’ve got your spectrum right here. Photo credit F.RdeC

Disturbance in the way in which one’s body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of the current low body weight.

In this case, Davanport would seem to only fit the first criteria. So it would seem in this case that Davanport was misdiagnosed as a teenager, which sadly probably happens all too much since so little is understood about mental illness.

That being said, the study done on looking at the relationship between anorexia and autism (which,  as far as I could tell, is the only one of its kind), stated that teenage girls who had anorexia exhibited more autistic traits than those without anorexia. The researchers hypothesized that this might be due to the obsessive nature that autism tends to produce could get directed towards calorie counting and limiting food intake. So then, is this anorexia due to body image, or is simply the result of obsessing about the food itself? Then again, the mayo clinic states in its description of anorexia that it isn’t really about food at all, but is instead an “unhealthy way to try to cope with emotional problems.”

So I ask again, if you have autism and an extremely low body weight due to limited food intake, are you still anorexic? I ask these questions not because I want to undermine what these women go through, nor do I wish to express outrage at the physicians for not better diagnosing their patients. I ask because I’m curious, and because I’m not sure if these questions even have answers. Because mental health is unbelievably complicated, and it can be so tempting to put people into neat little groups because it’s easier. But that doesn’t mean it’s right. I think it’s also important to note that the women in the anorexia study weren’t even necessarily autistic, they just had traits on the autism spectrum. Does that make them autistic? I don’t know, I’m not a psychiatrist, but my guess is not necessarily. In mental health it seems like nothing is certain, which is one of the reasons I could never do it, and I commend those who do.

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Mutation in gene reduces heart attack risk

You probably used to seeing headlines to the effect of “Scientists discover the gene for aggression!” or “Scientists have found the gene responsible for liking the color blue!” and usually these headlines are extremely misleading. Unlike what you were lead to believe in high school biology, everything about you isn’t controlled by just one gene. For example, there is no “tall” gene. If there were, there would only be three heights: tall, medium, and short. Obviously this isn’t the case. Now, there are some traits that are controlled by a single gene. For example, dimples are controlled by a single gene. Either you have the trait for adorable little dimples, or you are out of luck. This is called Mendelian genetics, named after the monk Mendel who figured out the inheritance of traits in pea plants. The creatively named alternative, non-Mendelian genetics, describes traits which are the result of interactions of multiple genes. Most human traits are the result of non-Mendelian genetics.

Which is why articles that claim they’ve found the whatever gene are usually not entirely true. These studies typically describe a gene they found that plays a role in determining that particular trait, but they are by no means entirely responsible. But I guess the headline “Scientists have recently found a gene that greatly contributes to such and such” is not as snappy and might not garner as many views. However, I am willing to take this risk. Now on to the actual point of this post.

Scientists have recently found a gene that greatly influences triglyceride levels, which are a major cause of many heart attacks. People with a mutation that destroyed the APOC3 gene were able to eat very sugary food and have no spike in triglyceride levels. To be perfectly honest, I tried to do research on what this gene does and why destroying it might lower triglyceride levels, but I did not understand a word of the explanation they gave in the paper. Regardless, the point is that other scientists who know a lot more about this than I do can use this information to possibly develop a drug that could recreate the effects of the mutation. If they were able to do this, then people with high triglyceride levels could take this drug and as a result be less likely to have a heart attack. And you don’t have to be a fancy scientist to know that heart attacks are bad.

The squid and the bacteria have teamed up to doom us all

Chances are you’ve heard about antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Due to our rampant overuse of antibiotics, many bacteria (like those that cause staff infections) can no longer be killed by those antibiotics. You see, when a population of bacteria is exposed to antibiotics, it will of course kill most of them. MOST being the operative word here. Some of the bacteria will be immune to the antibiotic. Since these guys are the only one left to reproduce, pretty soon the whole population is made up of bacteria that can’t be killed with that antibiotic.

Up until now, these bacteria are most commonly contracted when people are exposed to places where antibiotics are used on a regular

Look at how smug they are. Like delicious little sleeper cells just biding their time.

Look at how smug they are. Like delicious little sleeper cells just biding their time. (Vaigimeasun)

basis. Namely, hospitals. But for the first time researchers have found antibiotic resistant bacteria in food. Most shockingly, it was found in the place I would least expect it. My wonderful little friends, the squid.

I can’t help but think that this was actually a botched attack on me. That this squid had totally intended to end up in my hands as revenge for having killed his great-great-grandfather in the course of my research, but tragically he ended up in a Chinese grocery store in Canada instead. Regardless, this is surprising to me because I would have expected the first antibiotic bacteria to be found in some sort of livestock, like beef or chicken, since factory farms treat antibiotics like they’re vitamins.

And yet the mild mannered squid has taken this trophy. The good news is that the bacteria the researchers found is unlikely to make humans sick. The bad news? Bacteria have this neat little trick where they can share their genes with each other. Unlike you, who are stuck with whatever genes you happen to get from your mother and father (love you guys!), bacteria can trade around their DNA like Pokemon cards. Now, this happens more or less randomly. A bacteria with evil world domination inclinations can’t see that another bacteria has the antibiotic resistant gene and steal it away. But it could certainly happen through random chance, and the more antibiotic resistant bacteria out there (even if they are harmless to us), the more likely it is those genes will be transferred to a more harmful bacterium.

So what do we do now that the squid and the bacteria have formed an evil alliance against us? We have to reach a temporary truce with the viruses to take these SOBs down. It may be our only hope.