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Monthly Archives: October 2016

Germs Abound on Office Phones, Chairs, Desks

You may want to clear out your workspace and break out the disinfecting wipes: Your area is teeming with bacteria, most of which is human in origin, according to a new study.

More than 500 bacterial genera were identified based on an analysis of viable heterotropic bacteria cultivated off office space surfaces in three cities. There were highly significant differences in bacterial abundance among surfaces, genders, and cities, reported Scott Kelley, PhD, from San Diego State University, and colleagues inPLoS One.

Chairs and phones were the most contaminated surfaces while spaces inhabited by men were more germ-ridden compared with areas where women worked, they noted. Also, offices in San Francisco tended to be less contaminated than offices in New York and in Tucson, Ariz.

However, they pointed out that most of the human-associated bacteria were “commensals,” which indicates a symbiotic relationship between two organisms, where one organism benefits but the other is neutral.

“Humans are spending an increasing amount of time indoors, yet we know little about the diversity of bacteria and viruses where we live, work and play,” Kelley said in a statement. “This study provides detailed baseline information about the rich bacterial communities in typical office settings and insight into the sources of these organisms.”

Previous studies of office buildings have reported 106 bacteria per cubic meter in an ever-changing microbial environment. In 2008, Finnish researchers discovered hundreds of unique microbial lineages (OTUs) at just two different office buildings (BMC Microbiol online, April 8, 2008).

For the current study, the authors combined culture-based cell counting and multiplexed pyrosequencing of environmental ribosomal RNA gene sequences. This “deep-sequencing approach” allowed for broader sampling and more detailed sequencing. They chose offices in the three cities because they offered diverse climate regimes.

They swabbed about 13 cm2 of the same surfaces in every building: chairs, phones, computer mice, computer keyboards, and desktops.

They found that human oral and nasal cavities as well as skin were the primary sources of office bacterial contamination. Proteobacteria (Salmonella, Helicobacter) was the most common, followed by Firmicutes, Actinobacteria, and Bacteroidetes. Together, these groups made up nearly 90 percent of the sequences, the authors said.

Bacteroidetes is associated with the human digestive tract and the genera does include pathogens, but the sequence information that the authors collected could not distinguish bacterial strains or species.

As for the differences in contamination levels based on gender, Kelley’s group offered two possible explanations: Men are perceived as being less hygienic than women (washing their hands less frequently) and they also may shed more bacteria into the environment simply because they are generally larger than women.

Other bacterial genera noted in the study were associated with soils and with some environmental sources such as microbacteriaceae.

Finally, the samples from Tucson were quite different than those from New York and San Francisco, probably because of the desert soils. For instance, bacteroidetes and Cyanobacteria were essentially absent in the Tucson samples but were seen in samples in the other cities.

The 549 bacterial genera found in this study was much higher than the 283 unique OTUs discovered in the Finnish study, the authors said, most likely because of broader sampling and deeper sequencing. But the results were in line with studies onairplane bacterial contamination (ISME Journal online, February 7, 2008).

While the bacteria levels reported in the current study would probably only pose a problem for people who have severely compromised immune systems, these findings in “nominally ‘healthy’ buildings”could be useful for identifying sick building syndrome, the authors said.

You Can Smarter With Water

We get it. Despite the never-ending health benefits, staying hydrated may not top your daily to-do list. If you can’t get yourself to guzzle enough H2O, new findings might offer extra motivation: Drinking water can boost your brain power.

In a study presented Wednesday at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference in London, researchers found that students who brought water into exams performed better than those who didn’t. To make sure they hadn’t simply concluded higher-scoring students are more likely to bring water into a test, they used the students’ past coursework grades to set a general ability control. So even among generally poorer-scoring students, bringing water into the exams boosted their grades.

“The results imply that the simple act of bringing water into an exam was linked to an improvement in students’ grades,” says Chris Pawson, a professor at the University of East London and one of the study’s co-authors, in a release from the British Psychological Society. For those of us who’ve graduated from the test-taking world, the same could apply for our cognitive performance and work productivity, in theory.

Smart Water, Naturally

The researchers don’t know if the students actually drank the water they took into the exams, or how much they drank, but their presumption is that the test-takers consumed at least some of the water they brought with them.

And while Pawson and his colleagues didn’t get to the bottom of why water had this effect on the undergraduates’ grades, they have some theories. Maybe water enhances thinking power, leading to better scores. Maybe agua alleviates anxiety and stress, both known to hinder exam performance.

Either way, add “it makes you smarter” to the long list of reasons you should be drinking water. It already has a reputation for regulating body temperature, flushing out toxins, aiding digestion, balancing blood sugar, and even helping you deal with seasonal allergies, to name a few.

The easiest way to drink more water is to have it in front of you. At your desk, keep a big cup next to your keyboard. (Just don’t spill it.) On the run, always take a refillable bottle. If the taste (or lack of taste) turns you off, flavor your water with slices of lemon or fresh fruit.

Mass Hysteria’s Mystery

A few months ago, six teenagers at LeRoy Junior-Senior High School in upstate New York began exhibiting tics and verbal outbursts that resembled some of the classic symptoms of Tourette syndrome. The students — all girls, of whom there are now a dozen — were shaking and jerking uncontrollably, sometimes to the point of not being able to speak.

Parents and school officials were understandably alarmed and launched a full-scale investigation to determine whether environmental substances in any of the buildings could have triggered the problem. Thus far, however, all reports have come back clean.

Now a doctor who is treating some of the girls has come forward with a surprising explanation: mass hysteria.

“It’s happened before, all around the world,” said Laszlo Mechtler, MD, the neurologist who diagnosed the teens. “It’s a rare phenomena.”

Mass Hysteria Throughout History

Not that rare, as it turns out. Mass hysteria — in which various people in a common group (such as students within a school) spontaneously exhibit an outbreak of physical symptoms caused by psychological stress — has been documented frequently over the ages, dating all the way back to the 14th century. In fact, according to a report from the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, there were at least 70 distinct outbreaks between 1973 and 1993 alone, 34 of which occurred in the United States. Schools, workplaces, and small communities were the most common settings of these events, and women were more vulnerable to them than men.

Notable cases include:

  • The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic of 1962. According to popular retellings, several villages in Africa were paralyzed for months by a serious case of the giggles after a group of students at a boarding school in Kakasha started laughing — and then couldn’t stop. The “plague” spread first among kids and teachers, and then to parents and people in other towns, eventually leading to a shutdown of the school where it had originated. Some of the so-called facts have been sensationalized — depending on whom you ask, the event lasted anywhere from six months to a year-and-a-half — but researchers say the story is at least partially true. Something did strike Tanganyika in 1962, and while laughter was among its many symptoms, there was nothing particularly funny about it. Villagers also suffered crying attacks, pain, fainting, skin rashes, and even respiratory problems.
  • The June Bug Epidemic. The same year that found Tanganyikans falling inexplicably into fits of laughter, a mysterious disease broke out at an American textile mill. Some 60 workers reported symptoms of numbness, nausea, dizziness, and vomiting. The original theory was that the patients were victims of some virus transmitted by bugs in the factory, but doctors and experts from the U.S. Public Health Service Communicable Disease Center could find no evidence to support this and eventually concluded that the “illness” was in fact a case of hysterical contagion caused by anxiety.
  • The Dancing Plague of 1518. This much-discussed mystery began when a woman in Strasbourg, France, stepped into the street and began a days-long solo dance that eventually attracted more than 400 people and lasted for over a month. By the time it ended, dozens of dancers had died of heart attacks, stroke, or just sheer exhaustion. Scholars were stumped for an explanation — some believed it was due to smallpox, syphilis, or spiritual possession, while others thought it was a symptom of mold exposure — but modern researchers believe it was an example of mass psychogenic illness, a form of mass hysteria usually preceded by significant psychological distress such as famine, economic depression, or widespread death.

What Causes Mass Hysteria?

In many cases, hysteria is triggered by an environmental incident — such as contamination of the water supply — that causes people to literally worry themselves sick over getting sick, even though they’re otherwise perfectly healthy. In other cases, people who witness individuals around them falling ill unwittingly trick their own bodies into manifesting the same symptoms. And in still other cases, social or emotional pressures simply become too much for a community to handle, leading to widespread anxiety in the form of neurological problems such as blindness or numbness. All three situations are examples of psychosomatic disorders, meaning the brain is making the body sick — but experts say they’re no less real or painful than any other illness with physiological roots.

“They’re real symptoms,” Gail Saltz, MD, told the Today show. “[These LeRoy students] need a psychiatric or psychological treatment.”

Which is not to imply that the students are crazy or mentally deficient.

“This kind of thing could happen to anyone,” said David Lichter, MD, in a story Lichter is a clinical professor of neurology at the University at Buffalo, as well as a trained movement disorder specialist, and has evaluated at least one of the girls involved. The important thing to focus on, he says, is getting the students help.

Treatment for mass hysteria varies depending on the situation but may include separating the individuals involved and then addressing each person’s underlying stressors and specific symptoms — a solution some parents think falls short.

“Obviously we are all not just accepting that this is a stress thing,” said Jim Dupont, whose daughter is one of the girls affected. “It’s heart-wrenching. You fear your daughter’s not going to have a normal life.”

Why Snakes Make Your Skin Crawl ?

The poet Emily Dickinson greatly feared the “narrow fellow in the grass,” writing that she “never met this fellow/Attended or alone/Without a tighter breathing/And zero at the bone.”

Dickinson was not alone in her ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) and, it turns out, humans have good reason to fear the slithering serpent, whether it is found in the grass or elsewhere.

A new study in the Dec. 12-16 early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documents frequent python attacks on a tribe of preliterate, hunter-gatherers in the Philippines, one of the first studies to actually quantify the danger that snakes pose to humans.

And the danger, it turns out, is quite real, at least among the Agta Negritos of Luzon Island.

Anthropologist Thomas N. Headland, lead author of the new paper, lived among the Agta Negritos his entire adult life, starting in 1962, and had the opportunity to interview 58 men and 62 women about their experiences with pythons.

Fifteen of the men (26 percent) and one of the women (1.6 percent) had lived to tell of python attacks and many of them bore scars from the encounter.

Tribespeople also recollected six fatal attacks that occurred between 1934 and 1973.

This amounted to one “traumatic python incident” — either fatal or nonfatal — every two or three years, the authors stated.

Fatalities included a brother and sister who were smothered by a python that had slipped unnoticed into their hut at twilight. The father killed the snake as it was coiled around and swallowing one of the children headfirst, but not in time to save the child.

Several years before that, a python swallowed an adult male. The man’s son located the snake the next day, cut it open and retrieved the body so it could be buried.

Meanwhile, none of the interviewees recalled deaths from Japanese soldiers during World War II, venomous snake bites or from the giant crocodiles that inhabit this archipelago.

According to the paper, an adult male Agta has just over half the mass of a large female python, “not a heavy meal by snake standards.” Pythons routinely eat pigsweighing up to 130 pounds, the authors stated.

But Agta, too, represent a threat to pythons. Headland himself was witness to a nearly 23-foot-long snake carcass killed by Agta hunters, which provided 55 pounds of meat.

Agta and python also share many favorite dishes, including deer, wild pigs and monkeys. So it makes sense that humans have a natural distrust of their reptilian neighbors, the authors stated.

“This data supports the theory that we have genetic phobia,” said Headland.

And modern-day psychiatrist Dr. Bryan Bruno, acting chairman of the department of psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, agreed that the lingering fear people have today may indeed date back to human ancestors who were even more vulnerable to serpent attacks.

“When a car comes at me on the highway, it scares me, I get out of the way fast. But when we see snakes, the hair of the back of our neck goes straight up. It’s more than being scared of a car. It’s a tremendous fear,” said Headland. The fear, he added, is “human universal.”