|HERBAL HARM? New study warns of pot's effects|
Marijuana, long touted as a relatively harmless drug by those advocating its legalization, is the subject of a new study that suggests heavy users experience lapses in attention, memory, and learning skills even after the "high" wears off. The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and conducted at McLean Hospital of Belmont, Mass. The researchers-Harrison G. Pope, Jr., chief of the biological psychiatry laboratory at McLean's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center, and Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, director of neuropsychology at McLean's Brain Imaging Center-divided 129 undergraduate college men and women into two categories. They defined as "heavy" pot users those who had smoked a median of 29 of the past 30 days; "light" users were defined as those who had smoked a median of one of the past 30 days (H.G. Pope, Jr., D. Yurgelun-Todd, JAMA-Journal of the American Medical Association
:521-7, Feb. 21, 1996). After abstaining from drugs and alcohol for 19 to 24 hours, the students were given standardized tests to measure attention, memory, and learning. The results indicated that the heavy users had more trouble than the light users in sustaining attention; shifting attention to meet the demands of changes in the environment; and registering, processing, and using information. Among the possible causes, according to the researchers: an alteration of brain activity produced by marijuana, a residue of the drug in the brain, and drug withdrawal syndrome. Officials used the report to issue a warning. "We know from NIDA-funded research that daily marijuana use among young people has increased in recent years," says NIDA director Alan Leshner. "Young people are putting themselves at high risk of failure due to their marijuana use." Further research will test the neuropsychological function of long-term, heavy marijuana users for up to 28 days after use is discontinued.
New World Wide Web sites are popping up with stunning speed; commercial online services such as CompuServe, Prodigy, and America Online continue growing; and "surfing the Net" has developed into a catchphrase of almost annoying proportions. It probably stands to reason, therefore, that somewhere, someone is doing a study of Internet addiction. Viktor Brenner, a doctoral psychology student at the State University of New York, Buffalo, is conducting what he calls the first online survey of the psychological effects of Internet use and abuse "in hopes of identifying what it means to be 'addicted to the Net.'" Brenner, who works at the Marquette University Counseling Center, which is across the street from Marquette's computer building, tells The Scientist that he had heard "some second-hand stuff" from resident assistants and others about students spending excessive amounts of time in the computer lab. His curiosity aroused, he searched for information about Internet addiction, but found nothing. Thus was born the survey, which uses respondents' backgrounds, amount of time spent online, and answers to various true/false statements ("I have used the Net to make myself feel better when I was down. I have shared a deep, dark secret with a person on the Net") to try to determine what constitutes Internet addiction. The survey is accessible via the Web (http://www.mu.edu/dept/ccenter/intro_srv.html) and is based on Brenner's clinical knowledge of drug and alcohol addiction. "I realize it's not a particularly representative study, but I figured some data is better than no data," says Brenner, whose doctoral dissertation is on an unrelated topic. "I've already gotten more [responses] than I thought I would." It is still too early to analyze the survey responses, but Brenner says his goal is "to get some baseline data," then offer the survey to a broader audience to get a more representative response.
The Women in Science section of the New York Academy of Sciences last week celebrated Women's History Month by honoring a trio of distinguished women scientists representing medicine, education, and industry. Scheduled to speak about their careers and accomplishments were Anna Marie Skalka, a molecular biologist and the director of the Institute for Cancer Research at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia; Vera Kistiakowski, a particle physicist and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Edith Marie Flanigen, a structural chemist who recently retired from Union Carbide Corp. in Tarrytown, N.Y. The three scientists' accomplishments are varied: Skalka has contributed much to the molecular biology of viruses, including fundamental work on the protease enzyme of HIV; Kistiakowski has studied elementary particle physics; and Flanigen did ground-breaking work on the structural chemistry of zeolite catalysts, crystalline molecular sieves, and crystal growth. In addition to discussing their accomplishments and failures, the three planned to address how they balance their careers and family lives. Skalka, who tells The Scientist that she wears two hats as a scientist and an administrator, says the special difficulties that women scientists face are "only in perception. The kinds of challenges that I face are the perceptions, I guess, on the part of some people that women have a more difficult time, because of responsibilities, than men, but I think that's really a perception. Family responsibilities are responsibilities that are shared." Women entering the sciences, Skalka comments, "need to know that they should think hard about what it is they like to do. They should pursue opportunities that will allow them to do that, and not attempt to plan too far in advance. I think in these days that's difficult and maybe foolish, because times change." March 1996 is the 15th anniversary of Women's History Month in New York.
|MNEMONIC MAN: Alexander Volokh|
The fraction 22 over 7-represented by p-is a mathematics staple, denoting the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. While every first-year geometry student knows its approximate value to be 3.14, Alexander Volokh thinks he's devised a method to remember the value of pi out to 167 places after the decimal point. The Los Angeles-based writer and amateur mathematician has developed a stream-of-consciousness mnemonic device that would do James Joyce proud. The key is a rambling paragraph in which the number of letters in each word corresponds to an appropriate digit in the equation of pi. Thus, "How I need a drink, alcoholic of course, after the tough lectures involving quantum mechanics" equals 3.14159265358979-"how" has three letters, "I" has one, "need" has four, and so on. Volokh, working with pharmacology student David Tazartes of Johns Hopkins University and Seattle writer Steven LaCombe, extended that rather familiar device by more than 100 new words, using the end of each sentence to represent a 0. The son of a mathematician and the brother of a math major, Volokh says his efforts grew out of the math-related "puzzles and games" he grew up with. "We had a lot of the mathematical traditions in the family. One of the things about the math traditions is one learns all these neat ways of learning pi." And the reaction so far? "'Gee, that's really weird,'" Volokh replies. "Obviously no one needs to remember 167 digits of pi. Most people don't quite see the utility of it, but that's okay." While Volokh, who needed "maybe an evening" to develop the expanded version, concedes that 3.14 usually suffices as the value of pi, he says that the relative uselessness of his device does not render it totally without merit. "To say that math has to be useful is like saying that the English language is only good for ordering pizza," he notes. How many letters in pepperoni?
The School of Medicine and Medical Center at the University of California, Davis, has named cardiologist and former professor Erich H. Loewy to fill its newly endowed chair of bioethics. The 68-year-old Loewy tells The Scientist that "medicine is a social task, and medical ethics is a social task," and that both can be tied to a well-publicized current issue: "Especially in this country, to me our first ethical concern would be to craft some sort of equitable health-care system for all of our people. What we have now is not a system, it's chaos." Loewy's mission is to establish "a full-fledged bioethics program" of teaching medical students, consulting with researchers and hospital medical staff, and providing public service. He hopes that by teaching ethics to med students, UC-Davis can keep them "sensitized" to their patients. Loewy says he will go on rounds with residents and encourage them to discuss "troublesome ethical questions" they may have. "It's a very important thing to think about. It isn't peripheral," he insists. "Those questions can be very, very painful to the residents and the attending physicians. These end-of-life issues can really cause a lot of pain. In being able talk about it, it not only helps the problem itself, it also helps the human being confronted with the problem." A native of Austria, Loewy and his family fled the country before World War II, escaping the Nazis. He trained as a physician and cardiologist at the State University of New York, Syracuse, and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, then practiced medicine for almost 20 years before switching to biomedical ethics in 1984. He has taught at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Peoria and the University of Illinois, Chicago; edited various publications; and consulted for several organizations. "It's been shown that as residents go through training, they become less and less sensitive to ethical issues," Loewy says. "I think that trend can be reversed."
|ON THE TUBE: Wilfred Denetclaw, Jr. is a series star.|
Seeking to explore the special challenges minority scientists face, the PBS network will air a six-part documentary series, BreakThrough: The Changing Face of Science in America, on three consecutive Monday nights next month. BreakThrough is produced by Blackside Inc., the makers of PBS's widely acclaimed Eyes on the Prize, and profiles 20 current African American, Latino, and Native American scientists in biology, astronomy, physics, mathematics, and more. The minority scientists who are profiled note that while they confront the usual struggles their colleagues face -long hours, research in faraway places, endless meetings, and funding applications-they must also deal with "unique challenges that arise from their cultural beliefs." When biologist Wilfred Denetclaw, Jr., for example, was in an anatomy class, he was required to dissect a cat, which clashed with a portion of his Navajo-Indian upbringing regarding the touching of dead animals. The series' executive producer, Henry Hampton, tells The Scientist that the documentary has an educational goal. "The scientists and engineers in BreakThrough are doing important work," Hampton says. "They also serve as powerful role models who demonstrate the personal and professional satisfaction that can be gained through a life in science. We believe these programs can change people's minds about who can succeed as scientists, mathematicians, and engineers." Among the featured scientists are 1995 Nobel Prize winner Mario Molina (K.Y. Kreeger, The Scientist, Nov. 13, 1995, page 1)
and physics professor S. James Gates of the University of Maryland, College Park (S.J. Gates, The Scientist, July 10, 1995, page 12)
. BreakThrough is narrated by actor Andre Braugher and is scheduled to air on April 8, 15, and 22.
|WILD (MID)WEST: Purdue U.'s winning Rube Goldberg entry|
Take the contraption from the old game Mousetrap, replace the mouse with a piggy bank, and you get an idea of what will happen in West Lafayette, Ind., next week. The ninth annual National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, scheduled for March 23 at Purdue University, will bring together six teams whose aim this year is to build a complicated machine designed to place coins in a bank. The contest honors the late cartoonist Rube Goldberg, known for his charming sketches of complex, silly devices that featured a variety of needless steps to accomplish simple tasks. The 1996 version challenges groups to build machines that use at least 20 steps to deposit the coins. The machines must run, be reset, and run again in nine minutes. Purdue students, who participated in an on-campus competition last month, organize the event, which awards cash prizes to the top three teams and a "People's Choice" award to the team receiving the most votes from audience members. Scheduled to join Purdue's winner are teams from Hofstra University; the University of Texas, Austin; Oakland University; and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as the victor of Indiana University's regional contest, which includes Indiana, Ohio, and Tennessee. The competition will take place in Purdue's 6,000-seat Elliott Hall of Music, with a big-screen television broadcasting the action on the stage to audience members. Past contestants have used vacuum cleaner parts, mousetraps, kitchen sinks, commodes, electric drills, and stuffed animals.