Tuesday, November 29, 2005

My Teenage Prostate and the Cold War

Ran across a "biology blurb" in Scientic American today.

Some Swedish medical researcher wanted to know if brain cells regenerate naturally and, if so, how often. He was working on ways to help repair human brain damage.

Certain cells regenerate but there was no way to measure that process in humans because the chemicals used to measure it in animals are toxic to people.

Turns out that the Cold War era nuclear detonations in the deserts of Nevada lent him a crucial hand.

Above-ground atomic weapons testing increased dramatically starting in 1955. Those explosions threw enormous amounts of radioactive carbon 14 isotopes into the atmosphere which quickly diffused around the globe. Plants absorbed the carbon 14, animals ate the plants and people ate 'em both at the local Bob's Big Boy or in the comfort of their own dining room. Little did they know that their "Swanson's TV Dinners" were brimming with nuclear isotopes along with the squeaky green beans and the soggy french fries.

The above-ground testing stopped after the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, but the unusually high traces of carbon 14 have continued to show up in people ever since with lower and lower levels each year.

By measuring the amount of carbon 14 incorporated in the DNA of various tissues in the human body, and then correlating it with atmospheric carbon 14 levels, this guy can now figure out how "old" specific body tissues are. Tissues that regenerate more regularly show less carbon 14 while those that don't show more. Using the extreme spike in carbon 14 levels beginning in 1955, he can give very accurate dates for pretty much any body part for anybody living today.

Carbon 14 dating is the same technique that paleontologists use to date fossils, but nobody has ever figured out how to make it work with such specific year-to-year accuracy with living human tissue.

Seems that some body parts regenerate regularly more readily than others. Some internal organs and skeletal muscles are decades younger than the chronological age of the person. Brain tissue, unfortunately, doesn't seem to regenerate very well. Our brains are as old as the people who lug 'em around in our skulls.

The findings from this sort of research may lead to the creation of new and effective medical therapies.

On the other hand, I was born in 1957. We late era baby boomers apparently got the worst of the fallout from the testing.

If somebody between the ages of 42 and 50 glows in the dark, or sets off airport security alarms, or suddenly mutates into a 200 foot "Amazing Colossal" giant that attacks Las Vegas, hey, go easy on 'em. Remember that they had to crouch under their desks regularly during elementary school "nuclear war drills" and had only 8 channels of television to watch. It was a dark time when life was nasty, brutish and short.

Rough Night on the Town: The Amazing Colossal Man, 1957

I guess I have a "multi-generational community" living within my body. My brain is apparently "middle-aged man" who knows all about mortgages and garage door openers and is increasingly sceptical about passionate claims of any kind. My biceps and hamstrings may well be in their early 30's and ready to climb a mountain. My naive teenage stomach probably loves every new experience and is ready to party.

Who knew?


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