Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Placing the Market Before the Legislation

"When you think about medications that have been given approval to be sold in pharmacies, that's where most if not all of our medications come from [after hundreds of millions are invested in clinical trials, for marketing approval]."
"That model simply does not hold for much of the classical herbal cannabis research, where you're looking for basic claims of efficacy and safety, but not trying to make a formal claim for a product that is going to be patented."
"Access to a credible placebo may seem like an odd thing to have as a challenge. But bear in mind that many of these studies are placebo-controlled, so you need a drug which is a credible placebo -- looks and smells and for all intents and purposes pretends it is cannabis when in fact it does not have the active ingredient you are testing."
Mark Ware, pain researcher, McGill University Health Centre, Montreal

"It's [marijuana] already at market so there's really no incentive, or virtually no incentive, for licensed producers to take the money they're generating from the sale of these products and reinvest it in research."
"One thing that was quite consistent was adverse events. And the benefits, even if they're real, are much smaller than what people might anticipate."
"I think this gives [doctors] some comfort, saying, 'Look, here's the evidence. It's actually missing in a lot of places, so I can't give it for conditions X, Y and Z'."
"Some of the pain studies go for nothing more ... than five, six hours. And this is for chronic pain. It's hard to get a great feel for how someone is going to do long term on a medicine after five, six hours."
"[The only evidence of marijuana being used to treat glaucoma is a single randomized study conducted on six patients]. We would kind of be putting the cart before the horse if we started to prescribe this without the research."
Dr. Mike Allan, professor of family medicine, University of Alberta, Edmonton
Advisories prepared by the Alberta College of Family Physicians, distributed to more than 32,000 clinicians, outline the scientific literature, or lack thereof, around medicinal marijuana.
Advisories prepared by the Alberta College of Family Physicians, distributed to more than 32,000 clinicians, outline the scientific literature, or lack thereof, around medicinal marijuana. (CBC News)

"We're in a unique place because a lot of large pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to fund these studies where they don't necessarily see the incentive for something that they aren't able to patent."
Professor Robert Laprairie, University of Saskatchewan

"You can design a short-term study with marijuana, or for that matter, with alcohol or opiates, and say, 'Look, we gave people a bunch of alcohol over a three-day period or one week or one month and they seem to feel better. It helped their anxiety'. But that doesn't mean it's a good medication."
Dr. Meldon Kahan, Women's College Hospital, Toronto
Medical Marijuana: How the Evidence Stacks Up
There is controversy aplenty, and lots of second guessing and hand-wringing over potential consequences with the final federal approval in Canada of legalizing the growing, marketing, use and possession of marijuana in mid-2018. The process of licensing growers and commercial sales outlets is ongoing. The agreement to divide the taxes derived from the sale of the weed between the federal government and the provinces has been settled. Police forces throughout the country are attempting to understand the parameters around which they will work in enforcing the law relating to driving while high.

The Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons are concerned as are Pediatricians, over the possible deleterious effect on the nation's youth that may result with those under 20 years of age using the drug that has the potential to inhibit brain maturity. And there are concerns over the prospect of a future where the consequences of long-term use of marijuana may turn out to be problematic because no one has ever done a concentrated study specifically to determine what those consequences might be.

The market of social users, like that of medical-use marijuana, continues to grow apace. Health Canada's data shows that licensed medicinal cannabis producers have increased between June of 2016 and June 2017 at a steady rate, from 75,166 to over 200,000; a tripling of registrations in each year  to the present.Yet concern is growing that there is no data with respect to long-term health outcomes with marijuana use.

The pharmaceutical model where research is conducted to license and patent a new drug to enable it to be commercially viable after proof that its use has medical merit, at a cost of multiple millions of dollars for each patent, in the greater interests of future years of sales, has bypassed a product that is already in circulation and has been for countless years, a product whose merits and demerits are vaguely recognized but has never undergone the scientific rigor of research and clinical trials.

Precisely because so many people have turned to the use of medical cannabis while questions remain open regarding its risks and effectiveness is hugely concerning to health authorities. This is a medication that was once regarded strictly as a recreational drug that has never undergone years of expensive commitment to scrutiny. There is no exclusivity of production and sales with marijuana, unlike what normally occurs when bringing an entirely new class of drugs to market.

However, points out Dr. Ware who served as vice-chair on the federal government's legalizing cannabis task force, the competition existing among licensed marijuana producers has led some to decide to invest toward research if only for the purpose of differentiating their brand from                that of other producers. Dr. Allan, on the other hand, foresees few benefits for producers to invest in such research since they already have a free, shared market.

And should negative results surface from any such research and resulting trials, no one would benefit; an obvious disincentive to embark on the process. A positive result from research, on the other hand, would change nothing. Still, according to Dr. Laprairie, there has been a steady and rising interest on the part of academics, patients and licensed producers to engage in advanced medical cannabis research.

Dr. Kahan is of the opinion that evidence does exist that cannabidiol, a marijuana compound, does produce medical benefits inclusive of pain relief, though he feels more study is required. The absence of a placebo that would be seen to be plausible appears to be a problem, since future study participants quite often have had ample experience with the use of cannabis, enabling them to readily recognize whether they have been placed in the study or the control group.

Dr. Allan points out a study finding that between 85 and 90 percent of nurses, for example, were able to differentiate when patients were on pills with cannabis derivation.


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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Ultimate Diet

"At that unique level of purity, it [HVMN sports drink] quickly and effectively delivers the optimal ketone levels for accelerated athletic performance."
HVMN company website 

"While we don't make explicit claims around turning your body into fat-burning machines, we have shown it reduces ghrelin, so it likely reduces appetite."
Geoffrey Woo, co-founder, HVMN, California

"Keto hype-train officially surpassed gluten-free hype-train in Canadian Google searches frequency. Which train crashes first?"
"Is this [study assessing HVMN's drink with 15 people, for four hours] even clinically relevant? Did it lead to the subjects actually eating less food? Did it have an impact on their health, their body composition?"
"The things that matter in the real world weren't measured here, but it's being hyped as the 'best diet'."
"The biggest question to ask yourself is, which diet could I happily do, forever?"
Aric Sudicky, Canadian physician, lifestyle medicine
hvmn ketone ester

The study, a 30-minute time trial, did see publication in Cell Metabolism last year. There were 39 cyclists among whom some imbibed the ketone drink and they managed to go on an average of 400 metres' greater distance than the cyclists who instead consumed a drink high in carbohydrates or fat. The HVMN drink has no salt, fat or carbohydrates; it is reputed to be 98-percent ketones. And, according to one taster who reviewed it, tastes "very, very extremely bad".

So to respond to Dr. Sudicky's query about happily indulging in the HVMN sports drink, it would depend upon whether the person involved is motivated more emphatically by the prospect of losing weight, alternately spurting ahead with greater energy and endurance, than the unlikelihood of appreciating the taste of this "very extremely bad" tasting liquid appetite-suppressant and weight-loss liquor.

The thing of it is, people are so consumed, so to speak, with the prospect of being and looking fit, of losing weight to appear healthy and athletic, that they will latch on to any kind of diet that promises to deliver the results they hanker for. The beverage in question is a small 25-gram drink and within 30 minutes of imbibing, the body responds by reaching a level of ketosis hastening what would normally take days of fasting to accomplish.

Ketogenic diets work by being ultra-low in carbs and high in fat. The normal biological function that results in the body using its fat stores to ward off starvation is called ketosis, a dangerous condition that people with undiagnosed Type One diabetes reach, leaving them dangerously debilitated and in need of instant medical attention. When carbs can't be processed by insulin-secretion into glucose fuel, the liver forms ketones.

This drink formulation, "the world's first ketone ester drink", is an elixir that lowers blood levels of the hormone ghrelin, the hunger hormone, resulting in a decreased appetite, a lowered interest in eating. In the U.S., the federal Food and Drug Administration has classified the drink as a food; a package containing three units is set to be priced at $99, expected to come on the market in the U.S. early in 2018, later expanding to Canada.
HVMN, a Silicon Valley based startup that's launching a “ketone ester” the company claims puts people into a state of ketosis within 30 minutes and that mimics the effects of fasting for up to three to four days. HVMN handout

Marketed as a sports drink to enhance performance for "serious athletes", the company foresees that its product would also be useful in a ketosis diet considered by nutritionists to represent the most extreme of the low-carb plans. Carbs are restricted in Keto diets to as low as five percent of total calories in a diet where no grains, cereals, fruits or sugars are permitted.

This diet, in its early days, can result in a state named "keto flu", represented by bad breath, brain fog, sugar cravings, crankiness and dizziness, along with other symptoms. Dietitians claim that the diet encourages the consumption of unhealthy foods high in fat, salt and processing. HVMN's ketone ester, according to Woo, delivers "seven to ten days' worth of a fasting amount of ketones in a consumable form".

Ten elite male cyclists were involved in a study later published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology where Dr. Louise Burke and her colleagues at the Australian Institute of Sport found riders performed poorly after drinking a ketone supplement, an outcome due to "gut discomfort". "Prolonged vomiting and dizziness" caused one of the study cyclists to drop out after the warm-up. Woo responds by pointing out that the study made use of a different ketone compound than what his formula uses.

The HVMN compound comprised of betahydroxybutyrate, one of three ketone compounds naturally produced by the body during a fast or a period of starvation, was developed with a $10-million military grant during the Iraq War, when a food stuff "to enhance war fighter performance on cognitively and physically demanding missions" was called for. A decade of collaboration with Oxford University and National Institutes of Health scientists succeeded in its development.

In November, a small study with 15 normal-weight volunteers was published in the journal Obesity, revealing that people who consumed the ketone ester reported feeling less hungry two to four hours after drinking the compound in comparison to others who had consumed a dextrose drink. As well, the hormone ghrelin remained suppressed for a longer period.

Rats fed a ketone ester diet for five days ran 32 percent further on a treadmill in another study, completing a maze 38 percent faster (with fewer errors) than rats fed chow equal parts carb, fats and protein.

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Monday, December 25, 2017

Hormone Risks in Oral Contraceptives

Photo: Getty Images

"In aggregate, over a woman's lifetime contraceptive use might prevent more cancers [than it causes]."
"There is good data to show that five or more years of oral contraceptive use substantially reduces ovarian cancer and endometrial cancer risk, and may reduce colorectal cancer."
"And the protection persists for ten or twenty years after cessation." 
David J. Hunter, professor of epidemiology and medicine, University of Oxford, Britain

"[While results of the new study on breast cancer are important], these results are not a cause for alarm."
"It's really problematic to look at one outcome in isolation. Hormonal contraception has a complex matrix of benefits and risks, and you need to look at the overall pattern."
"We should be talking about vasectomy more. It should be seriously considered in many relationships."
Dr. JoAnn E. Manson, professor of women's health, Harvard Medical School

"We now have proof that you can lower  your risk at any age by modifying these factors [when the use of oral contraceptives has outlived their usefulness in reflection of the user's age and need, to turn to alternatives]."
Dr. Marisa Weiss, oncologist, founder of
"[The study results suggested a] rapid disappearance of excess risk of breast cancer after discontinuation of use among women who have used hormonal contraceptives for short periods."
"The number of cases increases with age because the risk of breast cancer increased with age."
"The risk does decline over time since ceasing their use."
Researchers, University of Copenhagen
Doctors still divided on when women should start mammograms

Since the risk of breast cancer increases with age it does so in lock-step with the risk of complications linked to oral contraceptives; for example, blood clots in the leg and the lungs. Gynecologists are mostly in agreement that women under ages 35 to 40 need not be concerned over the conclusions of a new study out of Denmark recently published in The New England Journal of Medicine. 

According to Dr. Marisa Weiss of, if oral contraceptives were being used other than for birth control; to solve the problem of irregular menstruation instead, her advice is to take a break from oral contraceptives. It is possible the condition may have improved over time with use of the pills; alternately, another management option may be identified to replace the pills.

The concerns have been raised after the Danish study linked an increased risk of breast cancer developing with the use of birth control pills. Despite which, many in the medical profession caution there is no reason to feel alarmed, and nor should pills be discarded. Weighing the risk of an unwanted pregnancy against the one-in-seven-thousand risk of breast cancer calls for a weighty discussion revolving around age, general health and other risks for breast cancer.

For the vast majority of women in their 20s and 30s, breast cancer is a rare event in any event. Birth control pill use may slightly raise the odds of breast cancer (they have also been associated with increases in cervical cancer); the relationship between cancer and the contraceptive use is complex. At the same time, oral contraceptives seem to reduce the incidence of less common reproductive cancers, such as endometrial and ovarian cancers, often detected when they have advanced to a stage where they are difficult to treat. Some evidence also exists that birth control pills may reduce the odds of colorectal cancer, as well.

During the earliest days of the pill use in the 1960s, a British study of over 46,000 women were followed up to 44 years to find that despite increases in breast and cervical cancers among women using the pill, the overall cancer rate effect was actually neutralized, taking into account the reduction of risk of other cancers. And it is not the only study which has reached a like conclusion.

Previous research had linked birth control pills to a slight breast cancer risk even decades ago. The surprising element in this more recent study and its conclusions is associated with the fact that the risk has persisted even though new pills use lower doses of estrogen and that the increased risk was experienced as well by women who use implanted intrauterine devices which are geared to release a hormone directly into the uterus.

It is recommended that women using an IUD identify whether it releases the hormone progestin which the Danish study has implicated in increased breast cancer risk, or whether a nonhormonal IUD such as the copper version is being used. It's just as well to be aware that bearing children before age 30, breast-feeding at any age for any length of time, minimizing radiation exposure and eschewing hormone therapy after menopause can all help reduce breast cancer risk.

Add to that not smoking, losing weight, exercising daily and limiting red meat consumption and alcohol may also reduce risk, according to Dr. Weiss.

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Sunday, December 24, 2017

Improved Vision = Enhance Longevity

"Not only can cataract surgery give people a better life while they're living it, they can also live more of it."
"[When people can see better] they can also move more and get more exercise. They can see their pills better and may be more likely to take them and take the right ones."
"The surgery [cataract removal] also improves visual contrast, which decreases the risk of accidental deaths from falls or driving. It's important to get the best vision a person can have."
"It's probably the most successful surgery we have -- it has a 98 percent success rate."
Dr. Anne L. Coleman, University of California, Los Angeles

"[The surgery] was quick and easy -- maybe five minutes -- and it was like a miracle."
"I couldn't believe how well I could see right after the first eye was done."
Jane Quinn, 72, Brooklyn, New York
optometrist looking at eye
Older women who undergo cataract surgery may live longer.  Medical News Today
At one time surgery to remove cataracts was performed under general anesthesia. Patients, post-surgery spent nights in the hospital and it took weeks in bed to fully recover. Medical and surgical techniques have since advanced to the point where the procedure is performed with a local anesthetic, incisions are infinitely slighter and often require no stitches. "First one eye is operated upon, then the second one undergoes surgery roughly two weeks later. Recuperation is swift.

The formation of cataracts is linked to age, an almost inevitable consequence of aging. In those over 40 they represent the most frequent cause of vision loss. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation (sunlight), smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, prolonged use of corticosteroids, extreme nearsightedness and family history all represent risk factors in the development of cataracts.

The use of 100 percent UV ray-blocking sunglasses and a hat are considered useful preventives. Foods rich in vitamin E (spinach, almonds, sweet potatoes); carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin (derived from dark green leafy vegetables), and omega-3 fatty acids (found in spinach and oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines) may help in reducing the risk of cataracts developing.

A 20-year study of 74,044 women between the ages of 65 and up revealed that of the total, all of whom had cataracts, 41735 having had their cataracts removed experienced a 60 percent lower risk of death. Published on line in JAMA Ophthalmology in October by Dr. Coleman and her colleagues, the results have indicated just how vital attention to cataracts can be in promoting quality of life, if not longevity.

The normally clear structure behind the iris and pupil becomes distorted so that incoming visual images fail to clearly focus on the retina at the back of the eye. Cataracts cloud and discolour the lens of the eye. As cataracts form, images become increasingly fuzzy, glare tends to bother the eyes, there is impairment of night vision, and colour shades can be lost.

In the United States, cataract surgery represents the most frequently performed of all surgeries reflecting the fact that over three million Americans undergo cataract removal annually. Tiny surgical instruments are used to suck out the cloudy lens of the eye, to be replaced by an artificial lens. For most people, a half-hour recovery after surgery is all that is required before discharge from hospital and returning home.

Interestingly, the women in the study who had undergone cataract surgery were more ill than others -- having had more heart attacks, chronic pulmonary disease, peptic ulcers and glaucoma than those who didn't undergo cataract surgery, yet they lived longer. A lower mortality risk is also associated with men following cataract surgery, confirmed by previous studies.

The conclusion of the study was that while confirming earlier studies relating to fewer deaths in women having cataract surgery, data showed that those who had cataract surgery had reduced risks of death from cardiovascular, pulmonary, neurological and infectious diseases, as well as from accidents, and cancer, following surgery.

Image: Cataract Surgery May Lengthen Women's Lives
(Copyright DPC)

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Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Mystery Behind the Reality

"He used to belong to my tennis club. It was a joke. He couldn't move around. He moved around with his brain ... He tried. He isn't athletic physically at all."
"That's why when they [Toronto Police Force, mainstream media] said it was a murder-suicide, it's so impossible. It's like when a duck and a pussy-cat get together in the same cage and the pussycat dies, you say the duck killed the pussycat."
"He didn't have the physical strength to do it or the inclination. He was a very gentle person."
Murray Rubin, Sherman family friend

"As has already been mentioned, he would correct your grammar no matter who you were."
"He pretty well thought he was smarter than everyone else, and he wasn't wrong about that."
"But he was also humble and he was incapable of putting on airs. With Barry, it was no bullshit pretty much all the time."
Jack Kay, Apotex associate

"They [large pharmaceutical manufacturers] hate us. They have private investigators on us all the time, trying to investigate. The thought once came to my mind, why didn't they just hire someone to knock me off."
"For a thousand bucks paid to the right person you can probably get someone killed. Perhaps I'm surprised that hasn't happened."
"I have always been very conscious of my personal mortality."
Prescription Games, Barry Sherman, deceased
Jonathon Sherman cries as he and family members walk to the stage during a memorial service for his parents Barry and Honey Sherman. Nathan Denette/Canadian Press

"I met Sherman a couple of times in the mid '90s, having worked my way up the Apotex management structure whilst posing undercover as an international pharmaceutical procurement agent looking to buy product."
"At this time the pharmaceutical industry had some very dark corners, one of which was occupied by Sherman et al."
"As a businessman I believe that Sherman was ruthless in pursuit of fame and indeed fortune. Without doubt, in those days, he made enemies and was not the philanthropic all-around good guy that he is now being painted. He was always politically connected, but I believe he saw this as a form of, perhaps, protection."
Paul Whybrow, private investigator, former undercover fraud detective, Scotland Yard
Barry Sherman and Honey Sherman at the 2016 Toronto Action Party. Adrian Holmes/Postmedia

On Monday, two of Canada's wealthiest people were found dead in the basement of their Toronto mansion, hanging from posts astride their lap pool. Their house was on the Toronto real estate market for sale for multiple millions, and it was their realtor who had entered the house, discovering the deaths of Barry and Honey Sherman. On Thursday, an estimated six thousand people attended the massive funeral service at the Toronto convention centre. Eulogies were heard from close family, from the Premier of Ontario and the Prime Minister of Canada.

In his eulogy for his parents, son Jonathon Sherman expressed his contempt for the media, no less so for the police who had theorized that the deaths of his parents represented one of two scenarios; a double suicide or alternately a murder-suicide. The billionaire couple's children spoke of the warmth, love and commitment of their parents to one another, that there were no circumstances under heaven that would compel their father to seek death for himself and his wife. The gruesome death scene in fact made no sense whatever in the context of a murder-suicide.

The Sherman family has expressed its utter lack of faith in the interpretive and investigative work of the police by hiring their own private investigator, by ensuring a second autopsy was undertaken by a private pathologist, the results of which have not yet been divulged. The first autopsy attested to death by strangulation but the whys and wherefores are completely unaccounted for.  Immediately on news of the shocking deaths, friends, acquaintances and business colleagues all spoke of the warmth and philanthropic generosity of the owners of Canada's foremost generic pharmaceutical firm.

And, aside from hiring a lawyer in pursuit of the family's interests, the family has taken independent steps for their personal safety and security in light of what some as-yet undetermined conspiratorial force destroyed their parents' lives. The two owners of the pharmaceutical firm were indeed wealthy, they were important in the social and political life of the city and the country and points abroad and were feted for their generous philanthropy. Barry Sherman's personality was described as cantankerous, his wife as bubbly and kind, in effect his personal envoy to the world they inhabited.

Barry Sherman's professional life began with work for an uncle who owned Empire Laboratories, a generic prescription drugs distributor. On his uncle's death, the nephew bought out the company together with a friend. A decade later the company was sold to an an international company. Which led to the Shermans founding a new business a year later, the manufacturer of genetic pharmaceuticals, Apotex. Apotex and Sherman were no stranger to lawsuits, some rising out of the challenge of patent expirations; over 1,200 case files involving Apotex are on record.

But there is yet another, more personal lawsuit against Barry Sherman, one launched by his cousins, offspring of the uncle whose firm he bought out, who contend that they are owed a significant share of the profits of Apotex, founded with the profit gained from the sale of their father's original company. Those same cousins were being supported by Apotex and Sherman to the value of millions of dollars, an arrangement they felt insufficient to reflect their interests, determined to dredge from the company a financial settlement more generous in recognition of what they perceived as their just due.

Sherman became such an irritating presence with his constant challenges to patent expiration that large pharmaceutical companies engaged in ethically indefensible, illegal and criminal activities in an effort to disrupt his campaign to provide less expensive alternatives to the drugs that they had developed and which he planned to manufacture and distribute. Paul Whybrow spoke of meeting with a Big Pharma representatives who wanted to exploit innuendo charging that Sherman had a proclivity for sex with children, completely unfounded and out of character. Alternately, attempts to pursue placing cocaine in his vehicle.

Honey Sherman was the social and personable antidote to her husband's brash and prickly personality; where he doggedly pursued his agenda of push-back and the undermining of the patent privileges of pharmaceutical companies, she attended fundraisers, sat on boards and exhibited the social graces her husband lacked. The Baycrest Foundation, the Mount Sinai Women's Auxiliary, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto, the Holocaust Education Centre and the board of governors of York University all benefited from her involvement with them.
"I don't think Honey was ever in what could be called good health from the time I met her. And yet, between multiple back, hip, and shoulder surgeries for her crippling arthritis to recently surviving throat cancer, Honey was the most fun-loving, energetic, and uncomplaining person I ever met."
"Recently, I asked Honey what motivated her in her life. Why did she live the way she did, so focused on others, so consistently engaged in acts of charity, rather than the usual selfish pursuits of billionaires? She answered that she was sure being the daughter of Holocaust survivors had much to do with it."
Senator Barbara Frum
Barry Sherman himself engaged in political fundraising for the Liberal Party of Canada, filing a lawsuit in May in an effort to block the lobbying commissioner investigating political fundraisers that he had held for Justin Trudeau in 2015 and 2016. As far as he was concerned any such investigation represented "an unanchored fishing expedition". One Liberal leadership candidate was forced to return $27,000  in donations in 2006 received from five children of Apotex executives, inclusive of two $5,400 donations ostensibly from two 11-year-old twins. A practise that without doubt would have met the uncritical philosophy of Justin Trudeau.
"He really led the way, with some other companies, in making a competitive Canadian generic industry."
"It clearly led to much lower prices than otherwise, having generic manufacturers competing in the market."
Aidan Hollis, economics professor, University of Calgary

"That lobbying has succeeded in keeping Canadian drug prices for generics artificially high."
"Our generic drug prices are really, really, really ripping us off. And this was Mr. Sherman's life work."
Amir Attaran, law professor, University of Ottawa

"It became a concern of our governments to make medication accessible at a moderate price. In that respect he was a pioneer, without a doubt. And I dare say, so was I. We were the two major forces to make available many expansive brand name products available to the public at a moderate, low price, once they became genericized. That's a definite contribution of both companies in terms of public health."
"He does [did] things his way, I do things my way. Our relationship was as expected. He did a lot of good for the community. You have to look at the good side."
Leslie Dan, founder, Novopharm, Apotex competitor
The Toronto Police Force veered away from its original declarations of possible murder-suicide toward declaring the deaths to be 'suspicious'. Despite which, the deaths have not been identified as homicides, and nor have the police issued any public statement to the effect that they were seeking out suspects.

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Friday, December 22, 2017

A Very Special Christmas Gift

"We found that, around Christmas, people are generally happier and they're also less anxious and more calm."
"Every time you see these moods arise you see an increase in sex searches on Google."
"I think we conclusively show it's not a biological adaptation to the solar cycle because even with Australia and Brazil we see the same holiday effect and they're in opposite phases at any given time. So it can't be a biological adaptation to fewer  hours of sunlight."
"This shows how data from social media can actually disprove a hypothesis that was the most well established one in biology."
"Now we just need to find out what the social triggers are that increase biological reproduction around these times."
"I suspect it's because Christmas is very family-centered and specifically child-centered in terms of gift-giving and the story of baby Jesus. Christmas also marks the end of a cycle because it's at the end of the year, so maybe this just makes people feel more calm."
Dr. Luis Rocha, professor of informatics, Indiana University

Men had increased arousal at more revealing pictures in December to February
And here we thought that Christmas spurs feelings of nostalgia, of loving families affirming their faith in Christianity and the wonders of the birth of a baby who grew to be a man of immense philosophical wisdom to set out to teach the world that people have an obligation to one another, that their creator had invested them with the capacity to overcome their base instincts and emotions for the greater good of peace and equality and that to prove just how imperative it is, the creator was prepared to sacrifice his earthly son to emphasize that message and empower believers to achieve the goal that humanness imposed upon them.

So, apart from the ecstatic delight of children at the colourful blinking lights on evergreens growing from a pot on their living room floor, and all the wonderful gifts that a mischievous old elf clambered down their home chimneys to carefully array under that green, glowing tree, there is a special gift for adults, as well, beyond the amusement and pleasure afforded parents in witnessing their adorable children enjoy that cherished tradition.
Getty Images
Indeed, the holiday celebration of the birth of Christ represents a religious festival of immense importance to worshippers of Christ, the  holiday arriving at the bleakest of seasons in the northern hemisphere, when daylight hours are short and cold plagues comfort in every conceivable way. A time when family, near and extended, make a special effort to come together to renew familial bonds for the emotional comfort of reliving their commitment to one another and to the religion that provides them with the spiritual assurance they crave.

Now comes the result of new research, recently published in the journal Scientific Reports, concluding that during the Christmas season of bright good cheer, peoples' interest in sex reaches a crescendo. Data was analyzed from 130 countries with the use of Google Trends by researchers searching out sex-related terms through the space of a year, to discover a huge spike occurs when people Google sex terms just around the Christmas season.

That !Aha! moment that led to the further conclusion that this spike in sex interest nine month afterward resulted in a boom of September babies. Curiosity about the phenomenon spurred researchers to make use of Twitter to perform a "sentimental analysis" searching for words associated with emotion such as "love" and "thankful". What exactly might it be that during the Christmas season elevated peoples' amorous instincts?

There was an already existing hypothesis that held an abundance of September births was readily explained by examining biological factors not cultural ones, with the biology hypothesis leaning toward the human reproductive cycle, based on Earth's orbit, making it likelier to conceive around the winter solstice. This theory collapses somewhat when bringing in those living in the southern hemisphere when the winter solstice occurs in June. Only at Christmas time does sex-Googling spike.

The researchers didn't stop there. They forged on to discover that sex interest peaked as well during Eid al-Fitre which marks the end of the Islamic holiday of Ramadan. And while Eid al-Fitre is a movable celebration, not occurring on the same date yearly, sex interest nonetheless shifted, according to the holiday's presentation date. Furthermore, the pattern of these specific religious holidays eliciting in people an urge to procreate had no counterpart in other holidays.
Other holidays have much in common in a celebratory, cultural way with Christmas, resulting in family gatherings, time off work, special food, yet it is Christmas and Christmas only that inspires people to yearn for sex.

It turns out people are more interested in sex around the holidays, which could explain why most babies are born in August and September. Getty Images
"We didn't see a reversal in birth rate or online interest in sex trends between the Northern and Southern hemispheres -- and it didn't seem to matter how far people lived from the equator."
"Rather, the study found culture -- measured through online mood -- to be the primary driver behind cyclic sexual and reproductive behavior in human populations."
Dr. Luis M. Rocha, study co-author

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Thursday, December 21, 2017

Choices in Life and Death : Organ Transplants

"Amnesty International, in an open letter to Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins and Trillium Gift of Life president and CEO Ronnie Gavsie, asserted that 'To deny individuals access to necessary and life-saving medical treatment purely on the grounds of their prior or current health status -- including conditions resulting from the use of alcohol -- is discriminatory."
"There are many factors that go into the decision as to who gets on the waiting list, and who indeed receives an available organ. No one, not the governor general, the prime minister or provincial premiers, for example, can jump ahead."
"Ethnicity, gender and race are never, I repeat, never, a factor. Amnesty International's allegation of discrimination is preposterous, unfounded, unfair and irresponsible."
"When it comes to organ allocation, the criteria are clear, and up to this point in time, universally accepted. There is no moral judgment at work in this process. The greater chance for recovery is a definite factor in the deciding process."
Rabbi Dr. Reuven P. Bulka, C.M., chair, board of directors, Trillium Gift of Life Network, Ontario

"I'm really feeling for the families who have lost loved ones due to these policies, due to small technicalities and things that could have saved so many lives."
"I'm not completely out of the woods after this [her gradual recovery through therapy other than a liver transplant]. The staff here [University Health Network, Toronto] have been amazing. Same as Ottawa General [hospital]."
"The uncertainty of whether or not I need a liver or if I would get a liver — that scares me. I'm not ready to die."
"It's unfortunate there are policies that could have found me in a different fate. My next step is to see [a hepatologist] and see what damage has been done for the long term."
Delilah Saunders, 26, Inuk woman from Ottawa
Delilah Saunders in her Toronto hospital room on Tuesday. The 26-year-old activist was told two weeks ago she needs a new liver, but is ineligible for a transplant because of her recent drinking.
Delilah Saunders in her Toronto hospital room on Tuesday. The 26-year-old activist was told two weeks ago she needs a new liver, but is ineligible for a transplant because of her recent drinking. (CBC )
Delilah Saunders, a young activist in the cause of Canada's missing and murdered Aboriginal women has made the news lately for reasons other than her activism. Initially her family said that the young woman had been taking so much acetaminophen for pain caused by an impacted molar that the drug had served to impair her liver to the point where it had completely malfunctioned. It would appear, in fact, that Ms. Saunders' failed liver function resulted from alcohol abuse. Alcohol consumption in excess is known to cause liver failure.

Aboriginals are known to be susceptible to alcoholism, it has always been a problem and continues to be a problem, a reality that cannot have been unknown to Ms. Saunders and her family. Alcohol consumption is a considered and deliberate choice; no one is forced to drink liquor. That choice led to the situation in which Ms. Saunders found herself recently; the reality that transplant material is in short supply necessitating that what is available is carefully husbanded. The point being transplant organs ideally should be used when those receiving them have a commitment to their own care.

That being the case, when someone has a history of alcoholism and then suffers the consequences in liver failure, they will not -- and this is indeed a universal concept -- be placed on a list of recipients awaiting transplantation until such time as they can demonstrate that they have refrained from drinking for six months previous to their application. Organ donations are in short supply, so much so that in Ontario in 2015, 127 people on a waiting list died while awaiting a transplant. That being the case what kind of common good sense would it be to transplant someone who is an alcoholic?

According to Dr. Nazia Selzner, a transplant liver specialist in the multi-organ transplant program at the University Health Network in Toronto, a wide variation in the rate of relapse to alcoholism after transplant is a reality. Studies, according to Dr. Selzner, vary between ten percent of patients relapsing, up to "as high as 90 percent".

A long-term study that saw publication in the American Journal of Transplantation in 2010 found that roughly 40 percent of the 208 patients with alcohol-related liver disease whose cases were studied over a number of years, had relapsed into heavy drinking. This is the issue, and it is one of careful use of a rare resource for the best possible outcome to society when people in need of a transplant can wait for years until that opportunity arises.
A liver transplant is done to treat liver failure, which can have many causes, including chronic hepatitis B or C, fatty liver disease, alcoholism, and autoimmune liver disease. A donated liver can come from a living donor, who gets part of his or her liver removed, or a deceased donor.
Typical costs:
  • For patients covered by health insurance, out-of-pocket costs for a liver transplant typically consist of doctor visit, lab and prescription drug copays as well as coinsurance of 10%-50% for surgery and other procedures, which can easily reach the yearly out-of-pocket maximum. Health insurance will typically cover a liver transplant.
  • For patients not covered by health insurance, a liver transplant typically costs up to $575,000 or more for the procedure, including follow-up care and medications for the first six months after the procedure.
  • According to, a health care cost comparison website, the average list price for a liver transplant is about $330,000, while the average negotiated price, through an insurance company, is $100,400    U.S. Figures
The over-heated charge by Alex Neve of the Canadian branch of Amnesty International along with Aboriginal groups that Indigenous people are deliberately excluded and victimized is slanderous and just plain wrong. These two groups have gone public in hysterical accusations in an effort to incite public indignation over yet another perceived wrong done to Canada's Aboriginal population. The argument that the existing policy is discriminatory, harming the poor, the marginalized and Indigenous is a charge void of accuracy.

Ontario's donor agency is contemplating a pilot project to waive the six-month sobriety requirement for heavy drinkers requiring liver transplants. "Our goal is to start it as early as possible, which means accelerate the planning of the pilot and the resources required to support it", explained Ronnie Gavsie, chief executive of the Ontario's organ donation agency, Trillium. "The way we're going to win here is if all of us, every one of us who is 16 years of age or older, register consent at"

Human Anatomy: Antererior View of the Liver

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Coming To A Highway Near You

"Canadians consumed as much as $6.2 billion of marijuana in 2015, almost as much as they spent on wine, the federal statistics agency said Monday as it gears up to officially track weed when it becomes legal next year."
"The agency calculated the value by estimating 4.9 million people consumed 698 metric tons of cannabis that year, at an assumed price range of $7.14 to $8.84 a gram. It used government health and social surveys and outside research to create its model."
"Statistics Canada called its report 'Experimental Estimates of Cannabis Consumption in Canada, 1960 to 2015' and admitted there is 'currently no systematic process' for measuring usage. The agency warned its estimate for the market is very rough, and actual consumption could 'reasonably' be as low as half or as much as double."
Financial Post, December 18, 2017
Annual consumption of marijuana appears to be one-half to two-thirds the size of the $9.2 billion beer market, or almost as much as the $7 billion wine market.    Postmedia Network

"'The compositional change in the cannabis market [from a younger, teen and 20s cohort to seniors] is consistent with a change where the baby boomer cohort was exposed to cannabis in high school and university, and carried a preference for cannabis consumption with them as they aged', the report notes."
"The rising trend occurs as boomers, and the cohorts that followed after them with similar exposure and preferences, replaced the war generation, which had different preferences with respect to cannabis use."
Statistics Canada
"Driving while impaired by cannabis or other drugs is dangerous and illegal."
"The message is simple -- don't drive high."
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale

"[Survey results] reinforce why we have invested in targeted public education and awareness efforts."
Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor

"[The federal government's public awareness campaign] has been a failure. It barely got off the ground until the fall."
"What it [the survey results] could mean is that some  individuals who really aren't impaired are going to be caught and other people who are impaired are going to get away with drug impaired driving."
"When legalization comes into effect, more Canadians are going to be consuming marijuana and more Canadians are going to be on our roads driving impaired. This is a rushed and arbitrary timeline [July 1, 2018]."
Conservative justice critic MP Michael Cooper 
About 4.9 million Canadians consumed cannabis in 2015, according to a new research study released by Statistics Canada.
About 4.9 million Canadians consumed cannabis in 2015, according to a new research study released by Statistics Canada. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

This was an election campaign promise by Justin Trudeau, aspiring to become Prime Minister. Promises issued from this man like candy scattered at the feet of eager children. Many of the promises to entice Canadians to vote for this man were meant to reverse many of the initiatives and legislation passed by the previous, Conservative government and have failed to materialize. The campaign promise to legalize marijuana is on tap, however. Even if eager growers and distributors have been setting up shop in the public arena, flouting the law as it stands.

There have been police raids to close down illegal pot shops and arrest people working in them, and they simply pop up again, ready to resume business. The bad news for these entrepreneurs is that only specifically 'registered' sales outlets for pot will be recognized as legitimate, all others will be breaking the law. The headaches associated with keeping pot out of the hands of the young to prevent health complications to their growing brains is an issue that has not been adequately addressed, nor will it be.

And then there's the other sobering issue of public safety on the roads. Provinces are tasked by the federal government to do all the heavy lifting in surveillance and organization. Time-consuming and costly, the provinces' responsibilities will be rewarded with an agreed-upon three-quarters of the taxation revenues accruing from industry sales. In the meanwhile, scientists, the medical community  teachers and police have all expressed misgivings over the impending date of legalization, July first, 2018.

Health Canada has now released the results of a survey indicating that of the 9,215 people interviewed between the ages of 16 and up, 2,650 respondents stated cannabis had been used by them in the previous year, for medical or recreational purposes. Half of the respondents consuming cannabis had the opinion that marijuana use affects driving skills, according to the Canadian Cannabis Survey, compared to 75 percent with that opinion among non-cannabis users.

Among the cannabis users surveyed, 24 percent said it depends, and 19 percent stated there is no affect on driving, with cannabis use.

Moreover, 39 percent of those who had used marijuana in the last 12 months stated that within two hours of consuming cannabis they had driven at some point during that year, while 40 percent claimed to have driven in the previous 30 days after using cannabis, and 15 percent admitted using cannabis in combination with alcohol and they had afterward driven. A mere two percent reported having had any interaction with police related to driving under the influence.

People found to have two nanograms of THC [the principle psychoactive ingredient in cannabis] per millilitre of blood within two hours of driving, under Bill C-46, stand the risk of being fined up to $1,000 and those with over five nanograms could be sentenced to up to ten years' imprisonment. Critics of these parameters point out that no clear correlation exists between the amount of THC in the blood and the level of impairment, varying widely from individual to individual. Serving to further complicate an already complicated issue.

Statistics Canada estimates that Canadians may have consumed $6.2 billion worth of marijuana in 2015.
Statistics Canada estimates that Canadians may have consumed $6.2 billion worth of marijuana in 2015.  (Ryan Remiorz / THE CANADIAN PRESS file photo

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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Hopes for the Future in Controlling Parkinson's

"Funding pioneering studies like this has the potential to throw Parkinson’s into a completely new light."
"It’s very early days in the research, but if it’s proved there is a unique odour associated with Parkinson’s, particularly early on in the condition, it could have a huge impact. Not just on early diagnosis, but it would also make it a lot easier to identify people to test drugs that may have the potential to slow, or even stop Parkinson’s, something no current drug can achieve."
Dr Arthur Roach, Director of Research, Parkinson’s UK

"The sampling of the skin surface will provide a rich source of metabolites which we can mine to distinguish healthy patients from those in the early stages of Parkinson’s. We are excited to embark on this biomarker discovery project. It is hoped that these results could lead to the development of a non-invasive diagnostic test that may have the ability to diagnose early Parkinson’s – possibly even before physical symptoms occur."
"It's very humbling as a mere measurement scientist to have this ability to help find some signature molecules to diagnose Parkinson's. It wouldn't have happened without Joy [Joy Milne of Perth, Scotland]. For all the serendipity, it was Joy and Les who were absolutely convinced that what she could smell would be something that could be used in a clinical context and so now we are beginning to do that."
Professor Perdita Barran and her team at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB)
Joy Milne's husband
Joy first detected the odour on her husband Les, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's at the age of 45
How strange, the many permutations of diseases and their markers. Patients suffering from Parkinson's disease have been identified with impaired olfactory sense resulting from Parkinson's. Olfactory dysfunction appears to be a pre-onset sign of Parkinson's. Yet how strange it is that a detectable odour in people with Parkinson's, both before and after diagnosis of the symptoms, has been discovered thanks to one woman's discerning sense of smell when her husband was entering the diagnostic period of Parkinson's onset.

Joy Milne of Perth, Scotland was  absolutely certain she detected a change in her husband's personal odour a full six years prior to his diagnosis with Parkinson's. According to the now-67-year-old woman, her husband's characteristic odour underwent an alteration, subtle as it was, that she could detect long before he experienced any difficulty with movement. Her husband, Les Milne, after living for 20 years with Parkinson's following his diagnosis, died at age 65 in 2015.

Now this woman whose acute sense of smell and identification of an odour she linked with Parkinson's has led scientists toward a discovery of ten molecules which may lead to the first diagnostic test for this condition, as researchers at Manchester University became convinced that a discernible odour emanated from people with Parkinson's. Initially, researchers tested Mrs. Milne to verify her claim of detecting Parkinson's by odour.

She was exposed to skin swabs from groups of people living with Parkinson's, and those without the condition. And by smelling each she was able to accurately determine who suffered from Parkinson's and who did not, in a blind test. Among those who had Parkinson's, according to Mrs. Milne, was one of those whose sample was included but was not yet diagnosed because at that early stage no symptoms had been manifested.

The ten molecules appearing in high concentration on the skin swabs from Parkinson's patients have since been identified by the researchers. One in 500 people in Canada and Britain is affected by Parkinson's, causing deterioration of neurons in a specific portion of the brain. The condition leaves people struggling to move and even to speak or sleep. No definitive tests are currently in use; symptoms begin typically at the time when over half of the nerve cells in the brain have been lost to the disease.

Dr. Tilo Kunarth also tested Mrs. Milne's diagnostic ability through smell alone at Edinburgh University, confirming her ability to detect the condition. Given a dozen unmarked Tee-shirts to smell, six having been worn by Parkinson's patients, the other six worn by volunteers absent the disease, she correctly identified all those with the condition. "She was telling us that this individual had Parkinson's before he knew; before anybody knew", explained Dr. Kunath.

Speculation is that dogs could be trained to sniff out the disease if the molecules are correctly identified. And from there doctors could use the mass spectrometry analytical technique.

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Monday, December 18, 2017

Operating Room Surgical Fires

"What can you say to a patient having a skin lesion excised under monitored anesthesia care [MAC] who suffers severe burns to the neck and face from a surgical-site fire caused by unnecessary supplemental nasal cannula oxygen leaking under drapes and towels into the surgical field where electrocautery was used?"
'Oops!' is clearly insufficient."
Dr. John Eichhorn, University of Kentucky College of Medicine and Medical Center 

"If you want to hold the hospital or medical system accountable, you better have deep pockets."
"Because these injuries are seldom fatal or, in the long term, life altering, they don't get a lot of attention."
"It's human interaction and demands on time over thoroughness and efficiency. These are the things that need to change -- we have a system that is just too busy. There is no system that can operate at 100 percent and not fail."
Darrel Horn, former patient safety investigator, Winnipeg Regional Health Authority

"[For a fire to occur], the three elements of the fire triangle must be present: ignition [heat], fuel and oxygen."
Canadian Medical Protective Association
The last thing anyone would expect when they go into surgery is to catch fire. While rare, surgical fires causing injuries and burns occur in Canada, a new review reports.  Astoria.foto

Undergoing surgery to shrink a tumour mass inside a woman's trachea, the operation went extremely awry when the laser switched on by the operating surgeon caused a sudden flashback and a burst of flames where the laser had lit the inflatable cuff around the breathing tube where anesthetic gases and oxygen inside the windpipe were being delivered, from causing the cuff to deflate, gases to leak and the oxygen to be ignited. This resulted in a rare (for Canada) lawsuit when the patient sued for malpractise.

This was an untowardly dangerous event that should never have happened, but it did. The professional body that defends doctors accused of malpractise, in reviewing 54 cases of surgical fires and burns concluded that many patients came out of this type of unexpected complication during surgery with "scarring, disfigurement and psychological trauma". Some burns were occasioned by surgical equipment or chemicals during surgery.

The woman who suffered an "intratracheal fire" might not be comforted to learn through the inspection by experts that the injuries she sustained partially resulted in all likelihood by the anesthesiologist using 100 percent oxygen rather than the recommended lowest possible concentration, between 30 and 40 percent "to prevent OR fires in this scenario".

Alcohol-based antiseptics used to clean and prepare skin before an incision represent the most flammable of solutions which should be given sufficient drying time before any procedure is commenced. In some scenario the solutions, allowed to pool under the patient rather than being wiped up, present another opportunity for fire to erupt. Until completely dry, prep agents are highly flammable. Alcohol vapours can form, readily ignited by heat or a spark from a cauterizing tool. Alternately, lasers were known to have ignited dry gauzes or sponges placed within the incision site.

Malfunction of lasers, the power level too high or the use of an incorrect type of device represent other issues leading to fire, but half of the fires studied occurred when oxygen concentration was not diluted to the lowest possible level during laser surgery on a patient's head, neck or upper chest. As well -- it was pointed out by experts reviewing the cases -- communication breakdowns during surgery were cited along with delays in diagnosing burns.

The 54 cases all occasioned legal actions and the receipt of complaints to licensing colleges. According to patient safety experts, at least ten times as many additional cases would have occurred nationally. Problems such as these are of magnitudes higher elsewhere around the world and particularly in the United States malpractice lawsuits are infinitely more plentiful. In the U.S., up to 650 operating room fires annually are reported, with the true number much higher, reflecting the lack of mandatory reporting in half of the states.

A patient in Seattle had been awarded $30-million in damages two years ago when an endotracheal tube caught fire inside her throat during surgery to remove polyps on her vocal cords. Post-surgery and fire, she no longer is able to speak or breathe on her own. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration launched a surgical fire prevention initiative in 2011, citing cases including flash fires of an eyelid, a bowel explosion, throat fires and drape and gown fires.

In their document, 'The Patient is on Fire! A Surgical Fires Primer', it was noted that "Most fires in the OR will be either on or in the patient. Fires inside the patient are typically small but can be deadly." Among the 54 cases reviewed in Canada, there were no deaths resulting from the events, but five percent did involve "major, permanent" injuries.

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Sunday, December 17, 2017

"We used a box with an exchangeable, transparent front featuring a shaped hole at its centre. When an object was successfully inserted through the hole, a collapsible platform inside the box released a tasty nut at the lower end" says Cornelia Habl who conducted the study at the Goffin Lab in Vienna. "The birds selected the correctly shaped objects from a selection of up to five different shapes almost immediately without requiring any training." She continues: "Furthermore, they required fewer placement attempts to align simple shapes (circle, square, triangle) than non-human primates. Another interesting finding was that they turned complex object shapes in a way that would minimise their effort during insertion. For example, a cross shaped object would be turned at 90°, so only two protrusions would have to be inserted instead of four, or an L-shaped object with one protrusion facing forward and backward."

Read more at:
"We used a box with an exchangeable, transparent front featuring a shaped hole at its centre. When an object was successfully inserted through the hole, a collapsible platform inside the box released a tasty nut at the lower end" says Cornelia Habl who conducted the study at the Goffin Lab in Vienna. "The birds selected the correctly shaped objects from a selection of up to five different shapes almost immediately without requiring any training." She continues: "Furthermore, they required fewer placement attempts to align simple shapes (circle, square, triangle) than non-human primates. Another interesting finding was that they turned complex object shapes in a way that would minimise their effort during insertion. For example, a cross shaped object would be turned at 90°, so only two protrusions would have to be inserted instead of four, or an L-shaped object with one protrusion facing forward and backward."

Read more at:
"We used a box with an exchangeable, transparent front featuring a shaped hole at its centre. When an object was successfully inserted through the hole, a collapsible platform inside the box released a tasty nut at the lower end" says Cornelia Habl who conducted the study at the Goffin Lab in Vienna. "The birds selected the correctly shaped objects from a selection of up to five different shapes almost immediately without requiring any training." She continues: "Furthermore, they required fewer placement attempts to align simple shapes (circle, square, triangle) than non-human primates. Another interesting finding was that they turned complex object shapes in a way that would minimise their effort during insertion. For example, a cross shaped object would be turned at 90°, so only two protrusions would have to be inserted instead of four, or an L-shaped object with one protrusion facing forward and backward."

Read more at:

Superior Bird Brains

"Cockatoos are very interesting for this, because they're very playful with objects. [As was one cockatoo producing 'fishing sticks', stripping long slender strips from a wood block in his enclosure]."
"So we had one innovator, [one of the birds named 'Figaro' who spontaneously used sticks to fish out nuts] and a very important aspect of innovation [is] how it can spread in a group."
"This was the interesting thing [that other cockatoos were inspired by Figaro but manipulated the wood in their own way to achieve a similar function]. They were successful and interacting with the materials, but they weren't copying Figaro - they devised their own strategy of obtaining the reward."
"It's very interesting that they come up with this more effective technique. It confirms how innovative and how adaptable this species is to novel problems."
Dr Alice Auersperg, lead researcher, University of Oxford and University of Vienna
Cockatoo stripping a tool from a block of wood (c) A Auersperg
The birds make 'food fishing sticks" by stripping blocks of wood  Photo: A. Auersperg

"It was thought to be an exclusively human ability for a long time [fitting shapes]. Compared to primates, the cockatoos performed very well. [To succeed in various environments] they have to be very, very flexible."
"They did figure out a couple of ways to trick the box. But it was not counted as successful because it was not what I wanted them to do."
"They surprise you every day. Sometimes they outsmart me."
"They are escape artists. They are very, very exhausting in a home environment."
Cornelia Habi, master's student, University of Vienna
The key to a nut
Cornelia Habl Vienna tested Goffin's cockatoos in a tool use task. Credit: University of Vienna

Together with Alice M.I. Auersperg, a researcher at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Ms. Habi conducted a number of experiments with Goffin's cockatoos -- extremely intelligent birds, as they discovered throughout the course of their study. As difficult to credit as it may seem on first hearing, these birds were tasked with identifying and placing square tiles into square holes and then moved on to more complex, asymmetrical shapes to be placed in matching holes. The birds were well motivated since success equated with a treat.

The researchers' study, reported in the journal PLOS One, demonstrated that these highly intelligent birds were capable of improving on the performance of monkeys or chimpanzees in matching shapes to holes of similar pattern. Human babies are capable of placing a sphere into a round hole by age one, but placing a cube properly before age two eludes them. Primates are capable of similar tasks once they've had basic training before they succeed in the use of the experimental apparatus, named a 'key box'.

The birds, on the other hand, required no preparation, they proved able to assess the situation without prior exposure, and yet they excelled at the tasks. The researchers' explanation for the cockatoos' capabilities reasoned that the birds are foragers, taking advantage of whatever food that is available and thus sufficiently adaptable to perform well in some urban areas in Australia. To enable them to succeed, flexibility is a great aid.

Their very flexibility enabled the birds to figure out how they might exceed the parameters of the experiment to find the treat they craved. A video showed one bird tearing a splinter off a chair, using it to pry the apparatus open without having to match a shape to a hole. They are evidently experimentally ingenious. But their clever bypassing of the parameters earned them no kudos. They had to play within the rules of the game to earn their treats. Don't we all?

The key to a nut
The animals had to choose the correct 'key' out of five. Credit: Bene Croy

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