Concussion, traumatic brain injury, and life’s hard knocks
Search “concussion” in the media and you’ll come away thinking hard knocks to the head are chiefly a problem for kids and football players (or kid football players.) Last fall the blog of the Dana Foundation, which focuses on brain research and education, called it the “NFL Concussion Crisis.”
But as Fred Powledge points out at NPR’s blog Shots, concussion is a far more serious problem for old folks, of whom he is one. They have the highest rates of traumatic brain injury-related hospitalizations and deaths.
Powledge’s is a very personal account of his very personal concussion, which landed him in hospitals for two weeks last fall and is still irritating his life today. Recovery from concussion is s-l-o-w. A writer, he complains particularly about a frustrating increase in typo production.
Christie Aschwanden’s post at Fivethirtyeight is–predictably since the new home of Nate Silver’s data journalism enterprise is ESPN–about concussion in football. But she points out that “we still don’t have a way of definitively diagnosing concussion. Do we even know what a concussion is?” (Side note: This is an opportunity to point out that Aschwanden has recently joined Fivethirtyeight as lead science writer, boosting the site’s science-writing cred at least 538% after last year’s inauspicious start, described here at On Science Blogs.)
What concussion is is what it is now called formally: TBI, traumatic brain injury–or, in Powledge’s case, MTBI, mild traumatic brain injury. Although when it happens to you, he notes, MTBI doesn’t seem so mild. Not that the rename resolves much of concussion’s mystery, since what happens after depends on the severity and frequency of the blows that cause it, and what parts of the brain are traumatized, and the person affected’s general state of being.
We are sure to be hearing more about concussion in older folks over the next couple of years. That’s because Hillary Clinton, now age 67, suffered TBI after a fall in 2012. She spent 3 days in the hospital and, Lenny Bernstein reports at To Your Health, is fully recovered. But the episode will certainly surface as the 2016 Presidential election campaign roars on. I’m expecting rumors of permanent brain damage.
Why is the human skull so hard? Bro science knows.
The subject of concussion permits me an excuse to drag in a favorite topic, paleontology, specifically the evolution of the human skull. At his blog Laelaps, Brian Switek tackles two University of Utah researchers who have argued that “Hands evolved to punch faces. Faces evolved to take punches.” Switek points out that the idea that hands can be weapons, therefore they evolved to be weapons, is a post hoc fallacy common in arguments about evolution.
He notes that the researchers didn’t look for signs of broken facial bones or blunt-force trauma on skulls of early humans like Australopithecus, nor did they “try to model how early human skulls would have reacted to the stresses of an incoming fist. The entire argument is simply that australopithecine skulls look like they could take a punch. . . This is bro science – dudes pummeling each other driving human evolution.”
Pardon me while I take a moment to happy dance around the delicious notion of bro science.
Switek also notes that although early humans like the Australopithecine Lucy were bipedal, their hands were anatomically rather like those of their tree-living ancestors.
i.e., they couldn’t make fists.
Pow, right in the kisser!
I also want to drag in this Charles Choi report at Live Science on the oldest sample of Neandertal DNA, dated at around 150,000 years ago. Not a complete genome, or at least not yet.
Nothing to do with concussions, although it does involve a human skull. This is basically an excuse to run this extraordinary photo of the still-buried Neandertal, known as Altamura Man, who supplied the DNA. He is encrusted in calcite formations.
Speaking of professional moves by really good science writers, Maryn McKenna, she of Wired’s Superbug blog and many other professional highlights, has moved to Phenomena, the mini-blog network at National Geographic. Her new blog, Germination, sounds as if it will still be mostly microbial. The focus, she says, will be on “public health, global health, and food production and policy—and ancient diseases, emerging infections, antibiotic resistance, agricultural planning, foodborne illness, and how we’ll feed and care for an increasingly crowded world.”
HealthNewsReview rebirth and relaunch
And while I’m up and announcing novelty, the venerable HealthNewsReview, veteran vetter of medical journalism, is celebrating its 9th anniversary with a spiffy web site redesign and relaunch. Gary Schwitzer’s introductory post recaps some history.
HealthNewsReviewers have analyzed nearly 2000 medical news stories so far in the blog’s almost-decade. You will probably not be surprised to learn that only 14% of them deserved 5 stars, but I guess it’s somewhat encouraging that only 4% of them got 0 stars.
A particularly helpful–and terrifying–new feature is the decision to take on press releases as well as articles. This makes terrific sense, since so many so-called science and medical articles simply rehash the release, and often just reprint it verbatim–frequently without acknowledging that it is a release and sometimes even having the chutzpah to add a staffer’s byline. Schwitzer explains the reasoning for adding analysis of releases here, summarized neatly under the hed “News releases can lead media like sheep – hiding key problems.”
Exhibit A is a multi-author bashing of a University of Wisconsin release on use of a prostate cancer drug to slow memory loss in women with Alzheimer’s disease. The verdict: “Misleading to the point of deception . . . Yet it appears that journalists and other web producers bit on the bait and followed the lead of the news release unquestioningly.”
Oy. Scary. But much needed.
About back-patting bloggery
Linking to posts by friends and colleagues is common among bloggers, including some famous and highly regarded science bloggers, naming no names. I’ve been blogging about blogging weekly for nearly 6 years, but have been pretty restrained in this practice. If I do say so myself, and I do. However, this makes two weeks in a row. Last week it was Joel Shurkin’s fine Inside Science series on the discouragements of Alzheimer’s disease research. This week it is Fred Powledge’s insightful account of his concussion, aka mild traumatic brain injury, at NPR’s Shots.
Some readers will have noticed that Fred Powledge and I have the same last name. That’s no accident. Full disclosure: Fred Powledge is my first husband.