The father of the science of evolutionary medicine, Randolph (Randy) Nesse, has a favorite aphorism: “Medicine without evolution is like engineering without physics.” In the same way that it would be impossible to imagine building the Rosetta spacecraft, sending it 300 million miles to rendezvous with Comet 67P, and successfully deploying the Philae lander, chock-full with sampling instruments, without physics and specifically Newtonian mechanics, it proves similarly impossible, for instance, to get to the root of the horrifying scourge of Alzheimer's disease unless we ask deep and fundamental questions, informed by evolution, about what the alleged poisonous plaques of beta-amyloid protein are doing in the brain in the first place. Is amyloid pure pathology or does it have an vital evolved function in the brain? In this sense, Nesse has frequently claimed that the value of evolution to medicine is that it while it may lead directly to changes in medical practice or indeed to new therapies, more fundamentally its value lies in explaining why things are as they are. That is why Nesse argues that evolutionary biology should be the foundation and cornerstone for medicine as it should be for all biology. This book is an attempt to put yet more flesh on the bones of Nesse’s idea that evolution is the “physics” of medicine. I describe the evolutionary background to seven areas of human disease that are causing deep contemporary medical concern to explain why they exist in the first place—why things are how they are - and how evolution might help us to combat them. I hope it will leave readers with a new respect for evolution as the prime mover for the structure and function of human bodies, even if it does, on occasions, cause them to break down and drives us into ER!

Each chapter is built around the sometimes harrowing but always inspiring personal stories of people trapped in the disease process in question. Each chapter provides an evolutionary explanation for why the disease has come about, and each chapter shows how medical researchers, using powerful insights gained from thinking about disease in an evolution-informed way, are charting our way out of it.

How a modern version of the hygiene hypothesis - called the "old friends" hypothesis - explains why the Western world is riddled with allergic and autoimmune diseases, and what we can do about it.
How evolutionary theory explains why the battle between the different selfish genetic interests of mothers, fathers, and fetuses causes low fertility and can lead to diseases of pregnancy like recurrent pregnancy loss, preeclampsia and gestational diabetes.
What is the relationship between the fact that we have evolved to walk upright - our bipedalism - and a range of orthopedic illnesses?
Creationists have always used the example of the "irreducible complexity" of the human eye as the bedrock of their argument that God designed the human body, not evolution. Modern developmental biology, however, not only strongly rebuts creationism but explains the astonishing secret of how the recipe for eyes actually unfolds from within the developing eye itself, not from external influences, and is leading to cures for eye diseases like retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration.
How does cancer evolve so remorselessly towards malignancy that it is proving almost impossible to cure? Cancer evolution can be so extreme and drastic it is forcing us to re-write the rules of evolution by resuscitating a heresy from the 1940s.
Why are coronary arteries evolution's answer to feeding our powerful, muscular hearts with the food and oxygen they need and how has this led to the continuing pandemic of coronary heart disease?
Research into curing Alzheimer's disease has become hopelessly bogged down and billions of dollars have been wasted trying to turn the "amyloid hypothesis" into therapy. Can we use evolutionary thought to better explain why dementia comes about in a way that might lead to fresh hope for a cure?


Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Family income and parental education related to brain structure in children and adolescents

We have known for years that the brain is a plastic organ - particularly during child and adolescent development. And we have conversely known that environmental enrichment stimulates brain development. This study shows that disparities in socioeconomic factors affect children in poorer families much more than disparities further up the socioeconomic scale. And that the areas of the brain most affected by social inequality and deprivation are precisely those that are needed to compete in today's world. Especially language, reading, executive functions and spatial skills. In America Republican vultures are already gathering over the carrion of the Obama administration (most people in the UK react with bewilderment over the virulent objections in the US to free medical care) and over here, in the UK, in the run up to the impending general election, Conservative Party ministers lie about the degree of social wreckage their welfare policies produce and disseminate propaganda about the legions of feckless welfare scroungers they are ridding the country of. I know its a long road from welfare policy and a "just society" to the neuroscience of brain development, and I don't want to over-simplify, but when I read scientific papers like this I find it dispiriting that I live in a country where people living at the bottom of the social ladder and consequently suffering from the lack of income, the poor nutrition, and the social and family stress identified by the authors of this paper as the factors impacting young brains are hounded rather than helped and branded by totally un-nuanced accusations about their commitment to work and child-rearing. 

Here's the abstract to the Nature paper reported upon in this Medical Express article.


Socioeconomic disparities are associated with differences in cognitive development. The extent to which this translates to disparities in brain structure is unclear. We investigated relationships between socioeconomic factors and brain morphometry, independently of genetic ancestry, among a cohort of 1,099 typically developing individuals between 3 and 20 years of age. Income was logarithmically associated with brain surface area. Among children from lower income families, small differences in income were associated with relatively large differences in surface area, whereas, among children from higher income families, similar income increments were associated with smaller differences in surface area. These relationships were most prominent in regions supporting language, reading, executive functions and spatial skills; surface area mediated socioeconomic differences in certain neurocognitive abilities. These data imply that income relates most strongly to brain structure among the most disadvantaged children.

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