Perspiration Power: Scientists Turn Sweat Into Electrical Energy

A tattoo biosensor (enlarged above) detects lactate levels during exercise; a biobattery using the technology could power electronics (Photo: Joseph Wang)

A tattoo biosensor (enlarged above) detects lactate levels during exercise; a biobattery using the technology could power electronics (Joseph Wang)

By Richard Knox

It takes energy to work up a sweat. But now researchers have cleverly figured out how to turn sweat into energy.

Scientists have devised a small skin patch they call a “temporary tattoo” that can transform lactate — one of 800 or so chemicals in sweat — into electrical energy.

Not much energy, so far. Only about 4 microwatts, less than half of what it takes to power a digital watch. But the energy alchemists are confident they can scale up their sweat “biobattery” enough to play an iPod, power a GPS device, or warn a marathoner when it’s time to top up her electrolytes.

The researchers think their work could also have military and biomedical applications, if they can tweak the technology to squeeze more electricity out of sweat.

“Sweat has been largely neglected, not thought of as a worthwhile physiological fluid.”
– Researcher Josh Windmiller

“Right now we’re working on the biofuel cell so it can get higher power,” Wenzhao Jia, of the University of California San Diego, tells CommonHealth. She’s describing the skin-patch biobattery tomorrow at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Francisco.

One problem in experiments so far: People who are less fit produce more energy from their sweat than those who are moderately fit. The fittest subjects produce the least amount of power. The researchers are trying to figure out how to compensate for this.

“We want to integrate another electronic element such as a super-capacitor that can store the power,” Jia says. “Ultimately, we can connect a number of cells together to make the current higher.”

Jia says the sweat-powered battery grew out of an earlier effort to monitor levels of lactate, a metabolic byproduct when sugar (glucose) is broken down to produce energy — a process called glycolysis. (It’s the buildup of lactate, or lactic acid, that makes your muscles sore after strenuous exercise.) Continue reading

Boston Pathologist Hears From Colleagues: How Nigeria Prepares For Ebola

 Ministry of Health workers burying one of the first Ebola dead outside Monrovia. (Photo courtesy  Rodney Sieh, editor of FrontPageAfrica, Liberia’s leading investigative online news magazine.)

Ministry of Health workers burying one of the first Ebola dead outside Monrovia. (Photo courtesy Rodney Sieh, editor of FrontPageAfrica, Liberia’s leading investigative online news magazine.)

The Ebola outbreak in Western Africa has now claimed more than 1,000 lives. Here, Dr. Michael Misialek, associate chair of pathology at Newton-Wellesley Hospital and assistant clinical professor of anatomic and clinical pathology at Tufts University School of Medicine, shares what he’s hearing from his Nigerian pathology colleagues.

By Dr. Michael Misialek
Guest contributor

As I sat in the meeting on Monday, helping plan our hospital’s response to a hypothetical suspected Ebola case, it seemed surreal.

Just a few days previously, I bet most Americans would have had trouble finding Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea on a map, and Ebola was most certainly not a household name. What a difference a few days can make.

Could Ebola come to Boston? It  could, theoretically. Many other local hospitals are having similar meetings to plan for that contingency. The World Health Organization recently stated that the Ebola outbreak is moving faster than it can control, and thus labeled it an international health emergency. The countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have been hardest hit. Nigeria recently reported two deaths with 10 confirmed cases.

When asked if they are ready, Dr. Ogunbiyi says, ‘No, there is work to be done.’

Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, is understandably worried. To find out how it is preparing itself and use some of that knowledge for our own preparations, I recently spoke with two colleagues there: Dr. Yawale Iliyasu, an attending pathologist at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria, and president of the West African Division of the International Academy of Pathologists; and Dr. J.O. Ogunbiyi, a pathologist at the University College Hospital in Ibadan, Nigeria, and former president of the same division.

As pathologists trained in the study of disease, we may often be the first to recognize and report on new and emerging illnesses. Continue reading

Project Louise: ‘The Single Best Thing You Can Do For Your Health’

Maybe you’ve seen this video already — it went viral on YouTube a while back. But I hadn’t, until CommonHealth co-host Carey Goldberg encouraged me to. If you also haven’t, I encourage you to watch it right now.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

So, now that you’ve watched it, I can go ahead and talk about it without worrying that I’ll spoil the big reveal for you. Actually, even if you didn’t listen to me and haven’t watched it, I’m not too worried about that, because the huge secret in this video is simply that (last chance to watch before I spoil it for you!) we should all be walking or exercising or in some way moving our bodies about half an hour every day.

We should all be walking or exercising or in some way moving our bodies about half an hour every day.

Not exactly news, right? But for me, anyway, something about the very simplicity of the video’s presentation made me sit up and pay attention in a fresh way. Dr. Mike Evans, the video’s creator, has made it his mission to present preventative-medicine information in as clear and useful a way as possible — and, to my mind, he’s done exactly that here.

The point: We all have 24 hours in a day. Spend 23 and a half of those hours any way you want, but just use the remaining 30 minutes to go for a walk. And the health benefits will be incredible. He’s got charts and stats and everything to prove it. By the end of the presentation, I just couldn’t wait to get up from my desk and go for a walk.

And I’m going to do that in one minute. First, though, I’ll pass along another link to a Dr. Mike insight — this one from a post on his blog. It’s in the form of an infographic, and I’m thinking of blowing it up and putting it on my wall. Again, a simple and obvious point with a powerful potential for lasting change: There is no one big thing we have to do to make ourselves healthier. It’s all about making a lot of little changes, sticking with them, then making more little changes and sticking with those, too.

Little changes like going for a walk.

OK, I’m out of here.

Childbirth Complications: Some Hospitals Have 5 Times More, But Which Ones?

(pumicehead/Flickr)

(pumicehead/Flickr)

By Richard Knox

The risk of a major complication of childbirth can be up to five times higher at one hospital versus another, a new study finds. But there’s no way expectant mothers can tell the high-risk hospitals from the low — at least, not yet.

A study in this month’s Health Affairs is the first ever to examine hospitals’ childbirth complication rates on a national basis. Authors looked at a representative sample of more than 750,000 deliveries that took place in 2010 at hospitals large and small, urban and rural, including both teaching and community institutions.

Major complications include hemorrhaging, infections, vaginal lacerations and blood clots. Unlike major complications from, say, cardiac surgery, these obstetrical glitches are not generally life-threatening.

On the other hand, as Dr. Laurent Glance, the study’s lead author, tells CommonHealth: “The vast majority of women of childbearing age are fairly healthy people. They can reasonably expect to have a baby without any complications.”

The study found that for women delivering vaginally, the risk of a major complication can be more than double at a “low-performing” hospital (23 percent) than a “high-performing” institution (10 percent).

When it comes to cesarean deliveries, the disparities are even greater — 21 percent at a low-performing hospital versus a little over 4 percent at a high-performing obstetrical unit.

The study doesn’t provide Massachusetts-specific complication rates, but the researchers found no significant differences between Northeast hospitals and other regions. “It’s reasonable to assume there is a similar amount of variation [among Massachusetts hospitals], but we can’t say for sure,” Glance says.

If you think of the results in a big-picture way, it means that among the roughly 4 million American births a year, hundreds of thousands of women could avoid childbirth complications if somehow low-performing hospitals could raise their outcomes to those of their betters. Extrapolating from the new study, about 520,000 new mothers suffer a major complication.

The wide disparities in childbirth complications care are especially striking when you consider how big a slice obstetrics represents of the total health care pie. Continue reading

When Good Parents Pack Bad Lunches: Study Finds Kids’ Food Falls Short

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Busted. So busted.

I’ve been meaning to write about this new Tufts study on the nutritional sins of the lunches kids bring to school. (No, it’s not just the cafeterias with their “vegetable” ketchup.)

But the spurts of guilt kept deterring me — the guilt of a mother who has been known to fill a lunchbox with Sun chips, alphabet cookies, challah and nothing else. Not even a pretense of a vitamin.

So I’m thrilled that the Boston Globe’s Beth Teitell has taken it on: At Lunch, Home-Packed May Not Mean Healthy.

Over 40 percent of U.S. schoolchildren bring their lunches to school on a given day.

Bottom line: It looks like the lunches that most kids bring to school are nutritionally pathetic. When researchers examined — and documented in photos — the lunches of more than 600 Massachusetts third- and fourth-graders in six public school districts, the meals almost all flunked. From the press release:

[Lead author Jeanne] Goldberg and colleagues compared students’ lunch and snack items to federal National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and Child and Adult Food Care Program (CAFCP) standards, respectively. They found that only 27% of the lunches met at least three of the five NSLP standards, and only 4% of snacks met at least two of the four CAFCP standards, both of which emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low- or non-fat dairy.

The findings highlight the challenges associated with packing healthful items to send to school. “When deciding what to pack, parents are juggling time, cost, convenience, and what is acceptable to their children. Unfortunately, these factors are not always in harmony with good nutrition,” Goldberg said.

“Lunches were comprised more of packaged foods than anything else,” Goldberg said. “Almost a quarter of the lunches lacked what would be considered an entrée, such as a sandwich or leftovers, and were instead made up of a variety of packaged snack foods and desserts.” Continue reading

Mass. Pledges New State-Run Insurance Website Will Work

The decision is in: Massachusetts will go with a new state-run health insurance website.

The Patrick administration revealed Friday that it is no longer building out the option of sending residents shopping for coverage to the federal health insurance site, HealthCare.gov.

“We are poised to offer consumers a streamlined, single point-of-entry shopping experience for health care plans in time for fall 2014 Open Enrollment,” Gov. Deval Patrick wrote in a letter to federal officials, dated Thursday.

About 450,000 residents are expected to use the state’s new site, built with the Virginia-based company hCentive, when it is set to go live Nov. 15. The residents include:

– at least 251,000 residents who’ve tried to enroll for free or subsidized coverage since last October and are in a temporary plan through MassHealth (this coverage expires Dec. 31);

– another 98,000 people who were in Commonwealth Care when the website failed and have remained in those plans (this coverage also expires Dec. 31);

– and residents who purchase private insurance through the Health Connector.

Many of these people are wary of state promises. They waited months after applying for coverage online, not sure if they had health insurance. Continue reading

Parents, Hold The Phone: Study Finds Teens Talk To You While Driving

(Lord Jim via Compfight/Flickr)

(Lord Jim via Compfight/Flickr)

Veronica Thomas
CommonHealth Intern

To prevent distracted driving, parents can get mobile apps that track their teen’s every driving behavior, from speeding to texting friends. But what happens when parents themselves are steering kids in the wrong direction?

More than half of teens are actually talking with their parents when they’re using their cellphones behind the wheel, according to a new study presented at this week’s American Psychological Association’s annual convention.

Car crashes are the leading cause of death among teens, and distracted driving is often to blame, causing 10 percent of fatal crashes. Nearly all teens admit to using a cellphone while driving, but they’re not the only group of drivers who try multi-tasking while operating a two-ton machine.

Studies have found that parents use their cellphones while driving just as much as their kids. Just as in the “Like Father, Like Son” anti-smoking PSA from the ’60s, mom and dad are modeling a driving behavior that at least quadruples the risk of crashing.

This new study, led by Parallel Consulting, finds that parents also promote distracted driving by calling and texting their kids to check in or catch up.
Continue reading

Beyond Good And Evil: New Science Casts Light On Morality In The Brain

Harvard brain scientist Joshua Buckholtz has never forgotten a convict he met back when he was an undergrad conducting psychological tests in prisons. The man had beaten another man nearly to death for stepping on his foot in a dance club.

“I wanted to ask him,” he recalls, “‘In what world was the reward of beating this person so severely, for this — to me — minor infraction, worth having terrible food and barbed wire around you?’ ”

But over the years, Buckholtz became convinced that this bad deed was a result of faulty brain processing, perhaps in a circuit called the frontostriatal dopamine system. In an impulsive person’s brain, he says, attention just gets so narrowly focused on an immediate reward that, in effect, the future disappears.

He explains: “If you had asked this person, ‘What will happen if you beat someone nearly to death?’, they will tell you, ‘Oh, I’ll be put away.’ It’s not that these people who commit crimes are dumb, but what happens is, in the moment, that information about costs and consequences can’t get in to their decision-making.”

For two decades, researchers have scanned and analyzed the brains of psychopaths and murderers, but they haven’t pinpointed any single source of evil in the brain. What they’ve found instead, as Buckholtz puts it, “is that our folk concepts of good and evil are much more complicated, and multi-faceted, and riven with uncertainty than we ever thought possible before.”

In other words, so much for the old idea that we have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, and that morality is simply a battle between the two. Using new technology, brain researchers are beginning to tease apart the biology that underlies our decisions to behave badly or do good deeds. They’re even experimenting with ways to alter our judgments of what is right and wrong, and our deep gut feelings of moral conviction.

One thing is certain: We may think in simple terms of “good” and “evil,” but that’s not how it looks in the brain at all.

In past years, as neuroscientists and psychologists began to delve into morality, “Many of us were after a moral center of the brain, or a particular system or circuit that was responsible for all of morality,” says assistant professor Liane Young, who runs The Morality Lab at Boston College. But “it turns out that morality can’t be located in any one area, or even set of areas — that it’s all over, that it colors all aspects of our life, and that’s why it takes up so much space in the brain.”

So there’s no “root of all evil.” Rather, says Buckholtz, “When we do brain studies of moral decision-making, what we are led into is an understanding that there are many different paths to antisocial behavior.”

If we wanted to build antisocial offenders, he says, brain science knows some of the recipe: They’d be hyper-responsive to rewards like drugs, sex and status — and the more immediate, the better. “Another thing we would build in is an inability to maintain representations of consequences and costs,” he says. “We would certainly short-circuit their empathic response to other people. We would absolutely limit their ability to regulate their emotions, particularly negative emotions like anger and fear.”

At his Harvard lab, Buckholtz is currently studying the key ability that long-ago convict lacked — to weigh future consequence against immediate gratification. In one ongoing experiment (see the video above), he’s testing whether he can use electrical stimulation to alter people’s choices. Continue reading

Ask A Philosopher: What Does New Brain Science Mean For Free Will?

Tufts philosophy professor Daniel C. Dennett on a schooner in Greenland in June. (Courtesy of Phil Wickens)

Tufts philosophy professor Daniel C. Dennett on a schooner in Greenland in June. (Courtesy of Phil Wickens)

More than once lately, brain scientists have told me, “You won’t get your answer here. That’s the purview of philosophy.”

The drill goes like this: They boggle my mind with the ways they’re beginning to be able to dissect and tweak the brain processes that underlie our moral selves, from decisions to judgments to feelings. (See Beyond Good And Evil: New Brain Science Casts Light On Morality In The Brain.) I eventually ask something like, “But if it’s all the brain, if it’s all biology, then what does that mean for free will? For moral responsibility? Blame for bad deeds? Credit for good?” And they reply, a bit apologetically, “That’s not a scientific question. It’s a normative one. Try philosophy.”

So I did. I reached Tufts University philosophy professor Daniel C. Dennett on an island off the coast of Maine. A seasoned veteran of the free-will debate — see his recent back-and-forth with “Free Will” author Sam Harris — he courteously interrupted his sailing and writing and ocean-gazing to field my frustrated questions. Our conversation, lightly edited:

Given that we now know — and can even perturb — some of the brain mechanisms of morality, and we see perhaps more clearly than ever that this is biological, what are the implications for blame, credit and free will to us, to everyday people?

First, it’s no news that your mind is your brain, and that every decision you make and every thought you have and every memory you recall is somehow lodged in your brain and involves brain activity. Up until now, we haven’t been able to say much more than that. Now, it’s getting to the point where we can. But it has almost no implications for morality and free will.

Why not?

Knowing where somebody has a thought doesn’t tell you anything about whether it’s an evil thought, whether they shouldn’t have thought it, whether they have their wits about them. You can’t even tell much about whether they’re sane or crazy from just looking at the activity of their brain. We can get some purchase on that, but not much.

But doesn’t it give a whole new weight to the idea of ‘Blame the brain, not me’?

Somebody wrote a book called ‘My Brain Made Me Do It,’ and I thought, ‘What an outrageous title! Unless it’s being ironic.’ Of course my brain made me do it! What would you want, your stomach to make you do it?

If you said, ‘My mind made me do it,’ then people would say, ‘Yes, right.’ In other words, you’re telling me you did this on purpose, you knew what you were doing. Well, if you do something on purpose and you know what you’re doing and you did it for reasons good, bad or indifferent, then your brain made you do it, of course. It doesn’t follow that you were not the author of that deed. Why? Because you are your embodied brain.
Continue reading

Ethicist To DEA: Mass. Docs Who Prescribe Medical Pot Are Not ‘Dealers’

Marijuana plant
“Game over,” I thought when I saw The New York Times defense of marijuana as less harmful than alcohol or tobacco last month. This from an institution so traditional it’s known as “the gray lady.”

And now, yet another institution with deeply traditional roots is shaking its finger at overzealous enforcement of federal marijuana laws that no longer jibe with public opinion in more and more states. In The New England Journal of Medicine, Boston University ethicist George Annas takes the feds to task for reportedly visiting at least seven Massachusetts doctors and telling them they have to either “give up their DEA registration or sever formal ties with proposed medical-marijuana dispensaries.”

Read his full article, which includes some clear and fascinating legal history, here. Perhaps the juiciest excerpt:

The DEA seems to be treating at least some Massachusetts physicians who are medical officers or board members of new marijuana dispensaries as drug dealers; I believe that in doing so, it is going too far. Unless a physician seeks to be paid by the dispensary on the basis of sales or volume, it’s difficult to see how acting as a medical officer or member of a dispensary’s board could constitute drug dealing. Massachusetts regulations specifically prohibit “a certifying physician” (one authorized to determine for specific qualifying patients that, in his or her professional opinion, “the potential benefits of the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the health risks”) from getting paid or accepting “anything of value” from a marijuana dispensary (which must be a not-for-profit entity). On the other hand, it is possible for physicians to act more like entrepreneurs than physicians in the not-for-profit sector. The DEA might, for example, even argue (if unpersuasively, given today’s health care market) that any business activity a physician engages in is outside the practice of medicine and could constitute drug trafficking.

Readers, thoughts?