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Psychedelic treatments are speeding towards approval — but no one knows how they work

By Sara Reardon, Nature

While a handful of states have legalized psychedelics in the treatment of psychiatric disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), researchers continue to debate how the drugs work in the brain. The most popular theory currently suggests that psychedelics open up the brain to rewiring, a process called plasticity. However, issues abound; for one, their legal status across most of the world makes it extremely difficult to work with psychedelic compounds such as psilocybin or ketamine. For another, scientists themselves can’t agree on two important definitions: what is a psychedelic; and what does “plasticity” mean? Differing definitions lead to partially or fully contradictory conclusions, and deciphering an overall conclusion is no small feat. It’s also difficult to have a true placebo in clinical trials, as patients can tell whether or not they experience the primary side effects of psychedelics: hallucinations. As we approach the age of psychedelics in clinical trials and clinical use, a lot more research will be necessary to clarify these big questions and ensure that they are safe and effective.

by Katie Stachowicz

Birds in the Americas Will No Longer Be Named After People

By Katrina Miller, The New York Times

The American Ornithological Society, which is responsible for American bird names, has announced that it will rename all birds named after people to address the issue of honoring racist or colonial historical figures. Instead, new bird names will focus on habitats or physical features of the birds. The announcement comes after pushback from birders around the country and the formation of advocacy groups such as “Bird Names For Birds,” which petitioned the  American Ornithological Society to change bird names in 2020. Other naming societies such as the Entomological Society of America, which handles insect names, have followed similar patterns, founding the Better Common Names Project to rename insects that had offensive titles. However, yet other organizations have remained with the status quo, such as the National Audubon Society, which voted to keep its name earlier this year. “We’ll lose a little bit of knowledge about some key people in the history of ornithology, and that saddens me,” an ornithologist at Montana Bird Advocacy told The New York Times, saying he was neither disappointed nor enthusiastic about the change. “But maybe in the scheme of things that’s just not that big of a deal.”

by Chaya Tong

In pain? Listening to your favorite music can provide relief, study says.

By Kyle Melnick, The Washington Post

Researchers at McGill University have found that listening to your favorite music can reduce pain perceptions to the same degree as taking an Advil. In this study, 63 participants from the university were asked to bring in two of their favorite songs. The individuals sat in front of a computer and listened to different types of music while their left forearm was touched with a thermal simulator, a small block that outputs heat. The participants were then asked to rate the pain on a scale of zero to 100 during different songs. During their favorite songs, participants rated the pain as lower, sometimes by nearly ten points. Next, the researchers want to place participants in an MRI machine to determine how dopamine drives emotions during favorite songs. This research could help to further our understanding of how music impacts the brain and how to reduce pain.

by Ellie Purinton

Apple Has Plans to Eventually, Maybe Revolutionize Health Care

By Mark Gurman and Drake Bennet, Axios

In 2011, Apple took its first steps at revolutionizing healthcare by starting Avolonte Health. The brainchild of late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, Avolonte was created to develop a noninvasive blood sugar monitor that would aid in diabetes management and care. Jobs himself was sick with pancreatic cancer, which ultimately ended his life. But rather than publicize his healthcare efforts, he chose to keep the project out of the public eye. Engineers interviewing for jobs didn’t even know they’d be working on a glucose monitor, and the Apple logo was prohibited from being worn on Avolonte’s premises.

But four years after the inception of Avolonte Health, Tim Cook introduced the Apple Watch without glucose monitoring capabilities. The watch touted a heart rate monitor, calorie tracker, and step count pedometer, but Apple’s original vision was much bigger. Cook wanted the product to act as a tiny medical lab with Avolonte’s blood sugar device at its core.

As Apple continues to scrap health-related projects, Cook’s vision — of improving health to be the tech giant’s “greatest contribution to mankind” — seems largely unfulfilled. But Apple’s healthcare endeavor has not been a total failure by any means. The latest watch model includes a blood oxygen sensor, sleep tracker, electrocardiogram system, and even a thermometer for fertility planning. Focusing on wellness rather than sickness has proved lucrative for Apple, as the global fitness tracker market is set to reach $200b by the end of the decade.

Future iterations of the Apple Watch will continue to expand health and wellness offerings. 2024 plans include detecting hypertension, and sleep apnea, and developing hearing aid capabilities for AirPods. Apple’s glucose monitoring project has moved to Apple’s main campus within the Exploratory Design Group. However, according to people with knowledge of the efforts, we shouldn’t expect fully noninvasive glucose monitoring to be a staple feature in the watch for a few years.

by Nolan Shah

A Modest Proposal to Save Mothers’ Lives

By Christine Henneberg, The Atlantic

Physical and occupational therapists were never made a priority for patients receiving OB-GYN care, but that needs to change. Often the only exceptions to this trend were granted to women in extreme states of pain or impaired mobility. Providers within the field argue that a simple adjustment to standard Labor and Delivery care could transform health outcomes and new mothers’ ability to recover. The current mechanisms of care are designed to facilitate what is considered a natural and fairly risk-free process, but childbirth is often a harrowing journey and an intense physiological process accompanied by many debilitating side effects. As maternal mortality rates climb, many physicians are calling for a more involved approach to medical care during the post-delivery period. Such approaches include expanding physical therapy to include more than just the pelvic floor, training hospital staff to holistically evaluate women after childbirth, and constructing meticulous regimens for postpartum depression. Hennberg also criticizes the costly nature of receiving such care. As more mothers observe the failure of hospitals to equip and comfort them following childbirth, the need for an intensification of post-birth treatments and therapies grows dire. 

by Soma Sonawane

Cancer trial results show power of weaponized antibodies

By Heidi Ledford, Nature

Life expectancy increases by months because of breakthroughs in cancer therapeutics. Recent cancer therapy trials have been doing more than that. Clinical trials using antibody–drug conjugates, a new type of cancer treatment, have been reducing the risk of death for certain cancers by more than 50%. Many of these encouraging results were presented at the European Society for Medical Oncology Congress in Madrid in October. Some of the responding cancers, such as advanced bladder cancer, have been characterized by a history of failed treatments, so antibody–drug conjugates are proving to be a real game changer. These antibody–drug conjugates deliver chemotherapy in a more targeted approach to the tumor, sparing the rest of the body from side effects. Take, for example, enfortumab vedotin, the antibody–drug conjugate that has been shown to be effective in advanced bladder cancer. Enfortumab vedotin contains an antibody component that binds to proteins more highly expressed by cancer cells. Simultaneously, it contains a drug that halts cell cycle replication—and thus cancer. Regardless, these drugs still come with their own risks of potential lung and nerve damage, so further research continues. For now, these antibody-conjugate drugs, however, continue to fuel the hope for better treatments for cancer and longer, healthier lives for many. 

by Jeeya Sharma

Items summarized by: Katie Stachowicz, Chaya Tong, Ellie Purinton, Nolan Shah, Soma Sonawane, Jeeya Sharma