Changing Faces: Stimulating the Brain Morphs People’s Faces Before Patient’s Eyes

The patient sits on the bed, his head wrapped in thick gauze bandages. He looks his doctor in the eye and says, “You just turned into somebody else… You almost look like somebody I’ve seen before, but somebody different. That was a trip.”

No, 47-year-old Ron Blackwell hadn’t taken any psychedelic drugs.  He wasn’t delirious or psychotic following the brain surgery he had recently undergone. Instead, he was responding to signals from electrodes implanted in his brain to help determine the source of his seizures. By coincidence, the test electrodes had been placed in his fusiform gyrus, the brain region involved in recognizing faces.

MORE: Could Deep Brain Stimulation Fend Off Alzheimer’s?

“Your nose got saggy and went off to the left,” Blackwell said, describing the changes he was seeing in his doctor Josef Parvizi’s face in a video released along with a new study. The research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, was led by Parvizi, who is an associate professor of neurology at Stanford.

While having surgery to treat epilepsy, Blackwell agreed to take part in an experiment led by Parvizi aimed at understanding what the fusiform region actually does and how specific it is to recognizing faces.

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Aspirin, a Wonder Drug? Studies Show It May Prevent Cancer

Taken together, the findings are the first to show the benefits of aspirin in lowering cancer risk in short periods of time. Earlier studies had demonstrated reduced risk after about 8, 10 or as long as 20 years.

“These findings add to the case for use of aspirin to prevent cancer, particularly if people are at increased risk,” lead researcher Dr. Peter M. Rothwell, a professor of neurology at the University of Oxford, told Reuters.

The benefits of the low-cost therapy have to be balanced with its risks, however, which include gastrointestinal bleeding. Over time, said Rothwell, the risk of such bleeding appeared to wane, but additional studies need to be done to confirm that the prevention of cancer outweighs any potential complications that might arise from aspirin’s effect on the stomach.

That type of evidence is what some experts are still waiting for. “I think he’s on to something. I just want to be cautious, and I don’t want to exaggerate,” Dr. Otis W. Brawley, chief medical officer and executive vice president of the American Cancer Society, told the New York Times. “I’m not ready to say that everybody ought to take a baby aspirin a day to prevent cancer.”

Many people take a daily aspirin to reduce their risk of heart attack, but now fresh evidence suggests that the over-the-counter pain reliever may be a powerful tool in cancer prevention as well.

In three new studies published in the Lancet,
researchers from from the University of Oxford say a daily dose of aspirin can reduce people’s risk of developing a variety of cancers and also lower the chance of their cancer spreading.


The studies looked at patients who were participating in several long-term, randomized trials on the effect of daily low-dose aspirin (75 mg to 300 mg) for the prevention of heart disease. The researchers examined how many of the participants went on to develop cancer. In one study, patients taking aspirin had a nearly 25% lower risk of cancer after five years, compared with those taking a placebo. That translated to a 15% lower risk of dying of cancer during the study period; after five years, the risk of death was 37% lower in patients who remained on aspirin. Leer más “Aspirin, a Wonder Drug? Studies Show It May Prevent Cancer”

Smoking May Lead to Faster Cognitive Decline in Men

Women, on the other hand, did not show any differences in cognitive scores over the same 10-year period. “The result among women was not particularly expected,” Sabia wrote in an email responding to questions about the study. But she says, it might easily be explained by the fact that there were fewer women in the study (2,137) than men (5,099), or because female smokers tended to smoke less than the men.

As far as the male smokers were concerned, the drop in cognitive functions, which included their scores on tests of memory, vocabulary, reasoning, verbal fluency and other executive skills, confirmed earlier studies that showed similar declines among those who lit up. But Sabia’s study is the first to find the effect in smokers as young as middle age. That suggests that tobacco can have an influence even on relatively young brains, and that its impact isn’t primarily due to the weaker neural networks of an already aging brain.

PHOTOS: Cigarette Warnings Around the World

But there was good news in the findings as well, especially for those who quit smoking. Men who had kicked the habit more than 10 years before the study began actually had better cognitive scores than men who had never smoked. Sabia credits this effect to the fact that people who quit smoking tend to become healthier overall, and may have adopted other lifestyle or diet changes that promoted better mental health.

That’s certainly encouraging, but Sabia cautions that the association between smoking and cognitive decline needs to be studied further. Because smokers tend to drop out of long-term studies of cognitive function due to disease, it’s possible that previous studies on the subject have underestimated the effect of lighting up on the brain. Sabia’s study is the first to use a statistical model to make up for this potential bias, but additional studies will need to confirm the relationship. If the research bears out, perhaps future public health messages about smoking will include warnings about cognitive harms as well as damage to the heart and lungs.

In a new study, middle-aged men who smoked did worse on tests of cognitive ability over time, but women who lit up didn’t show the same declines.
By ALICE PARK | @aliceparkny | Slyadnev / Getty Images


We know that smoking contributes to a variety of health problems, including heart disease, emphysema and lung cancer, among others. But now there’s  growing evidence that using cigarettes can also affect the brain: the latest study shows that smoking is associated with cognitive decline as early as age 45, and that male smokers may be more vulnerable to these mental effects than women.

For the study published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers led by Severine Sabia, a research associate in the department of epidemiology and public health at University College London, gave cognitive tests to 7,236 middle aged men and women three times between 1997-99 and 2007-09, when they were 44-69 years old, 50-74 years old and 55-80 years old.

The researchers also collected the participants’ 20-year smoking history through regular self-reported questionnaires.

MORE: The Nicotine Patch May Improve Memory

And when they compared the cognitive scores to smoking status, they found that men who smoked showed faster decline than nonsmoking men over 10 years.The size of the effect associated with smoking was similar to that of 10 years of aging. Even after Sabia and her colleagues adjusted for the effects of heart disease, stroke and lung function on mental abilities, the effect of smoking remained strong… Leer más “Smoking May Lead to Faster Cognitive Decline in Men”

FDA Approves New Suppliers to Ease Cancer Drug Shortages

“We have made real progress … We believe that (suppliers) will be able to meet the demands of patients in the U.S. market” for the two drugs indefinitely, FDA Dr. Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview. “It’s a huge relief for us.”

The FDA increasingly has been able to prevent drug shortages, mainly due to a sixfold increase in manufacturers voluntarily notifying the FDA when they anticipate shortages, Hamburg said.

Thanks to such notice, the agency prevented 195 drug shortages in 2011, mostly late in the year after President Obama issued an executive order giving FDA additional powers to address the shortages. Between that order on Oct. 31 and this week, the agency has prevented a total of 114 drug shortages.

Hamburg said that when FDA’s much-expanded drug shortages team is notified about impending shortages and contacts other manufacturers, those companies have been “very responsive” as FDA worked with them on finding ways to boost production.

In the latest case, the FDA said it has temporarily allowed importation of an alternative to Doxil called Lipodox, made by Sun Pharma Global FZE. The Indian drugmaker is already known to the agency, and its factory and the production line for Lipodox have been inspected.

Scimat / Getty Images

The FDA approved another supplier for a preservative-free version of methotrexate, a crucial drug for children with a type of leukemia called ALL and for high-dose treatment of bone cancer.

Federal regulators said Tuesday that they’ve approved new suppliers for two crucial cancer drugs, easing critical shortages — at least for the time being — that have left patients and parents frightened about missing life-saving treatments.

The news brings a light at the end of the tunnel for some patients, but not for thousands of others, given that there are currently 283 separate drugs in short supply or totally unavailable in this country.

On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration said it will temporarily allow importation of a replacement drug for Doxil, a drug for ovarian and other cancers that hasn’t been available for new patients for months.

The agency also has approved another supplier for a preservative-free version of methotrexate, a crucial drug for children with a type of leukemia called ALL and for high-dose treatment of bone cancer. The version with preservatives can be toxic or cause paralysis in children and other patients getting the drug either via injections into spinal cord fluid or at very high doses.

The FDA also has approved the release of a batch manufactured by Ben Venue Laboratories Inc., shortly before it closed several factories at its complex in Bedford, Ohio, due to serious quality problems. That closing is what turned the on-again, off-again methotrexate shortage that began in late 2008 into a crisis almost overnight, with fears that patients would begin missing treatments as soon as the end of this month. Leer más “FDA Approves New Suppliers to Ease Cancer Drug Shortages”

Whither Qnexa? A Brief History of Diet Pills and the FDA

To address those worries, Qnexa’s maker, Vivus Inc., had suggested approval of drug only for use in men and in women of non-childbearing age. That type of labeling work-around didn’t satisfy the FDA, however, and the agency asked the company to figure out a way to prevent pregnant women from using it.

Qnexa is not the first, nor will it be the last weight-loss pill to seek approval from the FDA. The market is ripe for a new drug to help Americans lose weight: “We really go from Weight Watchers to bariatric surgery when it comes to treatment options,” said Joseph Nadglowski, president of the Obesity Action Coalition, a patient advocacy group in Tampa, Fla., in an interview with Bloomberg. “For many, that’s a pretty big gap.”

But the FDA has a spotty history with diet drugs and an ever-rising bar for new weight-loss remedies. Following is a brief history of the diet drug industry’s successes, failures and near misses.

The original diet drugs date back to the 1950s. Amphetamines worked simply by boosting metabolism all around, driving the body to burn more calories faster. The problem — as with any energy system pushed to its limits — was that cells aren’t made to burn, burn, burn. They eventually burn out, leading to heart problems, chest pains, palpitations, insomnia and other health issues.

Amphetamines, which boost energy and mood, are also addictive, since they tap into the brain’s reward system. After their potential for misuse emerged, U.S. and European officials banned most amphetamine-based medications, but the drug is still available, often hidden in South American diet remedies.

Fen-phen and Redux
A new combination of the existing appetite-suppressing drugs fenfluramine and phentermine, fen-phen was all the rage in the mid-1990s, leading to weight loss in hundreds of thousands of Americans. In 1996, after much media attention, the FDA approved a related drug, dexfenfluramine, as Redux, which did the same thing as fen-phen but with fewer side effects. Yet the side effects were still severe: in the summer of 1997, the FDA revealed that 82 patients had developed defects in their heart valves while on fen-phen, and that seven patients had come down with the same condition on Redux. Other patients developed pulmonary hypertension, a sometimes fatal lung condition, and a JAMA study confirmed earlier reports that both fen-phen and Redux caused brain damage in lab animals. After millions of prescriptions written, in 1997 both fenfluramine and Redux were pulled from the market.

Sibutramine (Meridia)
Since amphetamines carried too many risks of addiction and other side effects, researchers began focusing on ways to trick the brain into wanting less food. Sibutramine, approved in 1997, worked on brain chemicals that affect appetite: by blocking the reuptake of neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and serotonin, the drug could suppress the desire to eat and convince the body that it was full, helping dieters lose 5% to 10% of their body weight in a few months. After studies showed users were at higher risk of developing heart problems and stroke, however, the medication was withdrawn from the market in 2010.

Lorcaserin (Lorqess)
Like sibutramine, lorcaserin focused on altering brain chemicals, specifically serotonin, to convince the body it was full. But an FDA panel recommended in 2010 against approving the drug because of studies in which female rats taking the drug developed a disturbing number of mammary tumors. The panel also asked Lorqess’s maker, Arena, to conduct additional tests on the drug’s effect on users with diabetes and heart disease, conditions that commonly affect those who are overweight.


We still don’t have a magic pill for weight loss, and the spotty safety records of diet remedies throughout history show why.

Alexander Ho for TIME


Will the second time will be the charm for the diet drug Qnexa? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reviewing the data on the weight-loss medication, again — an advisory panel will meet on Wednesday — having rejected the drug for approval once already in 2010.

The agency’s Endocrinologic and Metabolic Drugs Advisory Committee initially voted 10-to-6 against approving Qnexa over concerns that that it could increase heart rate and cause birth defects — concerns the FDA still has the second time around. According to the FDA’s briefing documents, the advisory panel will be asked on Wednesday to consider whether Qnexa’s maker, Vivus Inc., should conduct a clinical trial on cardiovascular risks prior to approval — a move that could significantly delay its reaching the market. Vivus proposes doing the study post-approval.

The key question for the panel isn’t whether Qnexa is effective for weight loss — clinical trials suggest it is, though in the second year of one trial, participants regained some of the weight they had lost in the first year — but whether its potential side effects outweigh its benefits.

Qnexa is a combination of two existing drugs — phentermine, an appetite-suppressing stimulant, and topiramate, an anti-seizure medication that is generally prescribed to control epilepsy but also affects appetite. The latter drug, topiramate, increases the risk of oral clefts, a birth defect, by two to five times when used by pregnant women, according to the latest studies, the FDA said. Leer más “Whither Qnexa? A Brief History of Diet Pills and the FDA”