What did the jockey who never lost a race whisper into the horse’s ear? “Roses are red, violets are blue, Horses that lose are made into glue!” OK, so it’s a groaner. But until the advent of polyvinyl acetate (PVA) and other synthetic glues in the twentieth century, the destiny of aging horses was indeed the glue factory. The collagen extracted from their hides, connective tissues and hooves made for an ideal wood adhesive. Our word “collagen” for the group of proteins found in these tissues actually derives from the Greek “kolla” for “glue.”
Not all aging horses were dispatched to the glue factory after their plow-pulling days came to an end. Some farmers found they could squeeze a little more profit out of the animals by assigning them another duty. They would become leech collectors! The elderly horses were driven into swampy waters only to emerge coated with the little bloodsucking worms. It seems the creatures found horses to be a particularly tasty treat! Since for many people suffering from various ailments, the little parasites were just what the doctor ordered, the harvesting of leeches made for a lucrative business.
Leeches have actually been used in medicine since they were first introduced around 1500 BC by the Indian sage Sushruta, one of the founders of the Hindu system of traditional medicine known as “Ayurveda.” That translates from the Sanskrit as “knowledge of life.” Sushruta recommended that leeches be used for skin diseases and for various musculoskeletal pains. Ancient Egyptian doctors extended the indications, treating headaches, ear infections and even hemorrhoids in this peculiar fashion. Galen, the famous Roman physician, used leeches to balance the four “humors,” namely blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. Swollen, red skin, for example, was thought to be due to too much blood in the body and the answer was to have leeches slurp the excess.
Curiously, despite having no evidence for efficacy, bloodletting, either with leeches or by making an incision with a “lancet,” became part of standard medical practice for more than 2500 years! Monks, priests and barbers got into the act along with physicians. In 1799 George Washington had more than half his blood drained in ten hours, certainly hastening his demise.
Many British doctors preferred leeches, especially in areas around the mouth, ears and eyes where lancing was a tricky procedure. They even learned how to encourage a leech to bite by stimulating its appetite with sugar or alcohol. But the creatures were in short supply, and had to be imported by the millions from France, Germany, Poland and Australia where they were often caught in nets using liver as bait. Sometimes poor children earned a little extra money by wading into infested waters to emerge, like the horses, with leeches attached to their legs. A gentle tug or a pass with a flame then relaxed the bloodsucker’s grip before much damage ensued. Good thing, because leeches can be pretty nasty once they latch on. Remember Humphrey Bogart flailing about in African Queen while trying to rid himself of the little vampires?
The lack of leeches caused some physicians to explore recycling techniques. Usually a single leech becomes satiated after filling up on about 15 milliliters of blood and then falls off. But then if it is plunked into salt water, it will disgorge the blood and is soon ready for another round. A German physician even developed a technique to encourage continued sucking by making an incision in the leech’s abdomen allowing for the ingested blood to drain out as fast as it came in. It seems the leech wasn’t much bothered by this affront to its belly and would go on sucking for hours. Amazingly, leeches were sometimes used internally. To treat swollen tonsils, a leech with a silk thread passed through its body would be lowered down the throat and withdrawn when it had finished its meal. Sometimes the creatures were even introduced into the vagina to treat various “female complaints.” The literature is vague about how this was done but one account suggests that the technique required a clever nurse.
While bloodletting as a general treatment for ailments has been drained out of the modern medicine chest, there is still work for leeches. That’s because their saliva is a complex chemical mix of pain killers and anticoagulants. Hirudin, for example, is the protein that keeps the blood flowing steadily after the initial bite is made, and is so effective that the blood will not coagulate for quite some time even after the leech falls off. Indeed, these bloodsucking aquatic worms have received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Agency as a “medical device.”
Surgeons have been known to use leeches after reattaching ears, eyelids or fingers that have been severed, as well as after skin grafts. This has to do with the fact that arteries are easy to reconnect but veins are not. Eventually new capillaries do form to reconnect veins, but in the meantime the finger or ear fills with blood which then clots and causes problems with circulation. A leech will drain the excess blood at just the right rate and can prevent blood clot formation by injecting hirudin. This is such a potent anticoagulant that it holds hope for dissolving blood clots after a heart attack or stroke. Unfortunately hirudin is too difficult to extract from leeches but can potentially be produced through genetic engineering techniques.
Where do physicians get leeches today? No need for horses. They can order them directly from the French firm Ricarimpex. One would think that after helping to save a finger or an ear the useful little critters would be rewarded. But their destiny is death in a bucket of bleach. Not any better than ending up in a glue factory.
Joe Schwarcz, Ph.D., is the Director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society and teaches a variety of courses in McGill’s Chemistry Department and in the Faculty of Medicine with emphasis on health issues, including aspects of “Alternative Medicine”. He is well known for his informative and entertaining public lectures on topics ranging from the chemistry of love to the science of aging. Using stage magic to make scientific points is one of his specialties.
In a recent post entitled, “The Joys Of Health Insurance Bureaucracy” I described how it took me (a physician) over three months to get one common prescription filled through my new health insurance plan. Of note, I have still been unable to enroll in the prescription refill mail order service that saves my insurer money and (ostensibly) enhances my convenience. The prescription benefits manager (PBM) has lost three of my physician’s prescriptions sent to them by fax, and as a next step have emailed me instructions to complete an online form so that they have permission to contact my physician directly (to confirm the year’s refills). Unfortunately, page one of the form requires you to fill in your drug name and match it to their database’s list before you can continue to page two. For reasons I can’t understand, my common drug is not in their database. Therefore, I am unable to comply with my insurer’s wish that I enroll in mail order prescription refills. This will further delay receipt of my medication – and probably increase my cost as I will be penalized for not opting into the “preferred” mail order refill process.
Now, all of this is infuriating enough on its own, but the larger concern that I have is this: How many patients are not “compliant” with their medication regimen because of problems/delays with their health insurer or PBM? Physicians are being held accountable for their patients’ medication compliance rates, even receiving lower compensation for patients who don’t reach certain goals. This is called “pay-for-performance” and it’s meant to incentivize physicians to be more aggressive with patient follow up so that people stay healthier. But all the follow up in the world isn’t going to get patient X to take their medicine each day if their health insurer or PBM makes it impossible for them to get it in the first place. And shouldn’t there be consequences for such excessive red tape? Who is holding the insurers and PBMs accountable for their inefficiencies that prevent patients from getting their medicines in a timely manner?
Pay-for-performance assumes that physicians are the only healthcare influencers in the patient compliance cycle. I’ve learned that we only play a part in helping people stay on the best path for their health. Other key players can derail our best intentions, and it’s high time that we look at the poor performance of health insurers and PBMs as they often block (with intentional bureaucracy) our patients from getting the medicine they need. While insurers save money by having patients struggle to get their prescriptions filled, doctors are payed less when patients don’t take their medicines.
Not a great time to be a doctor or a patient… or both.
Does my butt look fast in these pants?
Since I started running (in earnest) a couple of years ago, I’ve been doing what I can to stay motivated. Running is a great sport because 1) it’s cheap 2) you can do it anywhere 3) it’s hard. So, because of #3 I welcome all opportunities to make running fun – and wearing amusing shirts during races seems like as good a strategy as any.
The idea for the “Does my butt look fast in these pants?” shirt came from a sign I saw at a recent marathon. A guy was cheering on the ladies with a homemade sign that read: “Your butt looks fast in those pants!” I laughed so hard it took me a quarter mile to recover. So I shamelessly stole his idea and made a Better Health women’s running shirt out of it. If you think it’s cool and want one too – I’d be happy to print you one. The larger the batch we order, the less expensive it will be.
So if you’re looking for a funny Christmas gift… or if you just want to thwart the race competition by making it impossible for them to pass you without sputtering out a laugh, let me know. Email me if you’d like to order a shirt and we’ll discuss details. My email is: firstname.lastname@example.org (They are made of Nike dry-fit fabric, come in the colors shown only, and are available in Ladies S, M, L – if guys show interest I suppose we could order a run of men’s shirts too?). Let’s prepare to GET BETTER HEALTH this season… and run our way to victory in the battle of the bulge.
Tina Thompson, Mario Lopez, Dr. Val Jones
The Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) are about to kick off their annual Fit Family Challenge. The goal is to support families as they commit to a lifestyle of healthy diet, regular exercise, and strong moral qualities. It’s called the “Triple Play” approach – a game plan for body, mind, and soul. I’m honored to be their “mind” coach again this year, and will help to shepherd 250 BGCA families from across the country. Five finalists will be chosen to compete in Los Angeles for the title of fittest family near the end of 2012. We have timed the competition to coincide with New Year’s Resolution planning, and hope that these fit families will inspire others to turn over a new leaf in 2013.
As part of my support for the competition, I’ll be publishing several blog posts (at Better Health and the Fit Family Challenge Blog) with evidence-based healthy eating tips for the families – and for anyone who wants to follow along with the Triple Play Fit Family Challenge. I can’t wait to see how lives will change – and how together we can tip the scales against obesity, disease, and unhealthy relationships. Please join the Boys & Girls Clubs in this important initiative.
Can we “train” our brains to be brighter, sharper, faster?
A while back I wrote a post about a big study looking at “brain training”. The researchers wanted to know whether training programs that look like video games (like Brain Age andLumosity) could significantly improve brain performance on various tests. The results, in a nutshell, showed that while participants improved on the tasks they trained on (e.g., if the game involved ranking balls from smallest to biggest, the participants got *really* good at ranking balls from smallest to biggest), the improvement didn’t carry over to general brain function.Turns out ranking ball sizes doesn’t help you remember where you left your keys this morning.
Two years later, what’s the word?
I’m going to shift a little from how I normally do things (review a single article) and tell you about findings I learned about at the recent Aging and Society conference. At the conference, several researchers talked about brain training in the context of aging. We know that as we get older our cognitive abilities decline – we forget names and words, misplace our shopping lists, and process information a little bit more slowly. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could just spend ten minutes a day playing games on our iPad and successfully counter this decline? Of course it would be fantastic. Not just for us, but also for the companies who are trying very hard to convince us to buy their products to improve our cognition.
The problem is that skills are specific. If you want to become a fabulous jazz pianist, you have to play the piano (preferably jazz songs, too). If you want to become a star ballet dancer, you have to practice ballet. If you want to become a better mountain biker, you have to mountain bike – road biking will improve your leg strength and fitness, but ultimately it won’t make you a better mountain biker. So why should things be any different for brain skills?
As it turns out, they aren’t. Two years later, nearly all the research conducted in the field of brain training is turning up the same results: people only get better at the tasks they trained on – the improvement doesn’t cross over to more general skills, different skills, or everyday life. In one study, a researcher compared a commercially available brain training program with what she called an “active control” – a group that simply played regular video games like Tetris. She found that the group who spent time on the commercially available brain training program actually saw some aspects of their cognition decline compared with the control group. Bummer.
Now don’t throw out your Brain Age game yet – everyone at the conference agreed that engaging your brain in training programs is better than not doing anything. And most of the researchers felt that while the programs don’t work now, it’s not to say they’ll never work. We are increasingly more knowledgeable about how the brain works, what happens when we get old, and what different training tasks do. So it’s quite possible that sometime in the near-ish future (don’t ask me when) we could see the advent of brain training programs that do have a significant and lasting impact on cognition.
Until then, there is one thing you can do to have a significant and lasting impact on your brain health… And I’ll tell you in the next post.
Dr. Julie Robillard is a neuroscientist, neuroethicist and science writer. You can find her blog at scientificchick.com.