Margaret McCartney

I do love the internet: at home and also at work, where I can find things faster, often, than searching through a textbook (filing not being my strong point.)

The pros and cons of using the internet for diagnosis have been noted and an interesting recent perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine  – Untangling the Web – Patients, Doctors, and the Internet – makes the point well. Information has to be good.

Margaret McCartney

Shall we? The vegetable tide is turning. For those of us forcing vegetables into our children in the belief that they are essential to health, the news, from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute: Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Overall Cancer Risk in the European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition reporting a very large study, is that vegetables don’t cut the risk of cancer in the way some analyses had found: Fruit, vegetables, and cancer prevention: a review of the epidemiological evidence

All those UK Department of Health ’5 a day’ campaigns, and attempts to wean us off chocolate bars and onto bananas may have wasted their efforts.

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Margaret McCartney

Illuminating reading in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine this month: Mis investigating alleged research misconduct can cause widespread, unpredictable damage

When investigations into alleged misconduct do not accept the reports commissioned, trouble is afoot. The more I read, the more naive I feel.

Margaret McCartney

Ever bought one of these? …Its an electronic gadget claiming to be able to repel mosquitoes by emitting a low frequency noise. Tempting, I suppose, since it seems quick and easy – no tablets to remember.

However a cochrane review - Electronic mosquito repellents for preventing mosquito bites and malaria infection – have found categorically that these devices don’t work. Regardless, they have been on sale widely including on board several major airlines.

Dr Bart Knols, who edits the MalariaWorld website decided to get busy and write to the airlines expressing his concern. Success: KLM have pledged to no longer sell them from March 2010 – KLM: An airline that acts responsibly – and responses are awaited from BA and Singapore Airlines.

A victory for evidence.

By Rebecca Knight

Anyone who has ever spent considerable time with a young child who’s learning to talk -not just baby babble, but learning how to pronounce words, string phrases, and put sentences together – knows that it’s a fascinating thing to watch.

I have a two year-old daughter who every day is figuring out how to express herself with language. (She expresses herself in other ways too, she is a toddler, after all, but for the purposes of this blog, I’ll stick to language.) It started with basic words: ball, kitty, yellow, mama, daddy. Then phrases: “mo wawa pease” – that’s: “more water please” for the uninitiated. And now she repeats everything I say. Every. Little. Thing.
Perhaps what’s been most exciting, however, is the fact that she, unlike me, speaks two languages. At home, we speak English, but she also spends a lot of time with her Brazilian nanny who speaks to her almost exclusively in Portuguese. My daughter understands most everything her nanny says, and answers her, accordingly, in Portuguese. It’s true, what they say, small children are like sponges.
According to a new study, they’re sponges in the womb, too. The research, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Psychological Science, found that infants born to bilingual mothers who spoke both languages during pregnancy show signs of different language preferences than babies born to mothers who spoke only one language. 

Margaret McCartney

Simon Singh goes to the UK courts today (Tuesday 23rd February) in an appeal against a preliminary ruling in a libel action raised by the British Chiropractic Association. I wish him well.

Another libel action is ongoing on in the UK against cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst, who is being sued after comments made about results in connection with research done by US company NMT Medical.

There is an unsettling feeling in the UK about libel law: many scientists and doctors are speaking out about it as a bad way to judge scientific proof and evidence.

The potential cost puts many people off even pursuing debate and many choose to settle before a case knowing they may not be able to afford it.

You can read about Dr Wilmshurst’s case here and he is also interviewed on Radio 4 for a programme Science on Trial.

I would urge you to consider signing the petition if you have not done so already. Sense about science: National petition for libel law reform

Margaret McCartney

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking about the implications of the formal retraction which the Lancet has made of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al. This, of course, was the notorious study entitled ‘Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children.’

The science of the paper has always been noted to have been questionable, given the tiny numbers and study design; it was the press conference to launch the paper which started the media frenzy over MMR and autism. The paper was partially retracted in 2004, by 10 of the 12 authors involved. It is Wakefield’s appearance at the General Medical Council which seems to have spurred the Lancet into making the retraction final.

By Rebecca Knight

Can something as simple as the timing of when we take a coffee break help us better remember the presentation we just attended, or retain the details of the podcast we just heard?
A study by researchers at New York University thinks it can. In an experiment focused on memory consolidation – the phase when a memory is stabilised after it is originally created – the researchers found that memories are reinforced during periods of rest while we are awake. Past studies had shown this process occurs during sleep, not when we are wide-awake but resting.
Put simply: taking a break after a meeting can actually help you retain information because your brain wants you to tune out other things, so you can tune in to what you just learned.

Margaret McCartney

I do think that Karsten Jorgensen and Peter Gotzsche deserve a medal. Over the years they have worked in the Nordic Cochrane Centre they have published, unwaveringly, what their research has shown. This is, namely, that breast screening is not very efficient and causes harm.

It shouldn’t be such a big deal – research papers come out all the time arguing against what is commonly being done. But the problem with breast screening is that it seems to contain an enormous amount of emotional investment, and the only parallel I can think of is alternative medicine.

Health and science blog (Archived)

This blog, part of the FT's health series, is a forum for readers interested in the science, policy, management, technology, business and delivery of healthcare.

This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

About our regular bloggers

Margaret McCartney is a Glasgow-based GP and FT Weekend columnist. She started writing for the Life and Arts section in 2005 and moved to the magazine in 2008. She also has her own blog:

Clive Cookson has been a science journalist for the whole of his working life. He joined the FT in 1987. Clive, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education.

Andrew Jack is pharmaceuticals correspondent, covering the industry and public health issues. He has been a journalist with the FT for 19 years, based in London, Paris and Moscow