Category Archives: Health & Medicine

Zombies, Taxis and Science: Lessons From a Science Writer’s Conference

Brains… Brains… Brains… Photo from the Raleigh Living Dead Festival in downtown Raleigh. Photo by Cindy Honickman –

A bunch of the Penn State Research Communications team attended the National Association of Science Writers annual conference at Raleigh, N.C. last weekend.

Unfortunately, for me, it was an abbreviated conference. With Sandy bearing down on the East Coast and with me terrified of being stuck in the Detroit airport — no offense Motor City! – I decided to bug out early.

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Research Unplugged kicks off 9th year

We’re feeling a bit like proud parents around here lately. Research Unplugged—the Penn State speaker series that took its original inspiration from Europe’s vibrant Cafe Scientifique scene—turned nine years old this fall! With last season’s decision to partner with (and hold events at) Schlow Center Region Library, a weekly turnout of 75 to 100 area residents of all ages, and vibrant Q&A sessions on topics across the disciplines, Unplugged is not only surviving but thriving!

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Logic on the rocks

Flickr – Creative Commons

Last week my boyfriend and I were discussing how to stay cool while attending an upcoming outdoor wedding and reception, on a day that was forecasted to be about 93 degrees and something like 80-percent humidity. He wondered if drinking alcohol would help us stay cool — as there would be an open bar at the reception.

“You lose body heat when you drink alcohol,” he said. “That’s why you’re not supposed to go outside without a coat during the winter when you’re drinking.”

This coming from a guy who only wears a coat if the temperature is subzero. Maybe.

“What? Does drinking alcohol make you lose heat?” I hadn’t heard this before. And while my boyfriend acts as if he knows more than he does quite often, sometimes he does actually know what he’s talking about. (Don’t tell him. It might go to his head.)

He found several web pages, like this one, that supported his argument and said, “If it makes you lose heat in the cold, wouldn’t that be a good thing in hot weather?”

Well, this is a compelling argument, but I’m not quite sold. We both agreed that finding an expert to verify or refute this urban legend of sorts is the best course of action.

As this summer is turning out to be pretty hot no matter where you are, I thought this could be great barbecue conversation fodder. If the boyfriend was right, we could be heroes among our friends by telling them that their cold alcoholic beverages were indeed keeping them cooler — science says so! If he wasn’t right, then I could enjoy yet one more situation where he was proven wrong — and this time with science.

Enter Dr. W. Larry Kenney. He is a professor of physiology and kinesiology at Penn State, and is particularly interested in human thermoregulation and the biophysics of heat exchange. Perfect!

I wrote him a note with our dilemma. He quickly got back to me.

“It is actually a myth that alcohol causes you to lose body heat, winter or summer,” Kenney replied. “Alcohol sometimes leads to hypothermia in winter months because it leads people to make poor decisions about clothing, shelter, etc. Physiologically [there is] little impact.”

Kenney pointed me to a study that was done in 1980 where participants consumed the equivalent of “five bar whiskey drinks” and had their body heat loss measured. As Kenney told me, the researchers found that the subjects’ heat loss was not affected by their alcohol consumption. Slightly more interesting, I thought, was that the researchers tested three groups of participants — heavily clothed, seminude and nude — for whom the results were the same.

I’ll let that sink in for a second… Who says research can’t be fun?

OK. Back to what Kenney had to say about alcohol and summertime imbibing.

“The water content of most alcoholic beverages helps maintain hydration similar to other fluids, at least up through moderate consumption,” he says.

Boyfriend says he knew that. Of course he did.

So I leave you with this thought: whether you are heavily clothed, seminude or nude, you will not lose body heat because you are consuming alcohol. You might lose body heat because you are nude. Or you might just get strange looks for being heavily clothed in July.

If you drink, do so responsibly and no matter what always stay hydrated! Your drinks will only keep you as cold as you serve them.

Enforcing Big Pharma’s integrity

Katrice Bridges Copeland once worked as an attorney in Washington, D.C., defending pharmaceutical companies in fraud cases. The experience was an eye-opener. Now she teaches white-collar criminal law at Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law, where her research targets illegal marketing practices by the pharmaceutical industry. Most of the illegalities stem from off-label marketing of prescription medications. Such uses constitute fraud because companies receive government reimbursements for those drugs even though the purposes are not FDA-approved.

Copeland maintains that federal deterrents against such practices are ineffective, and she offers some solutions that she says will help solve the problem. The government pays out a whopping $60 billion a year in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements to drug companies, so what she has to say is getting national attention. See a recent USA Today story, for example.

What usually happens, Copeland explains, is that the government launches an intense investigation of a drug company’s alleged violations, the company admits guilt and pays a fine—and then becomes a repeat offender. Another investigation and fine may follow, but the fines are often outweighed by the increased profits that accrue from the illegal practices.

The government is generally unwilling to pursue pharmaceutical manufacturers through the courts because as the law stands now, conviction means excluding a company from receiving any Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements for any of its drugs. That would seriously harm innocent parties: shareholders, employees, and patients who are prescribed any of the company’s drugs. (Patients would have to pay for their medications from their own pockets.)

Copeland suggests several solutions to the problem, including holding corporate officers who participate in illegal practices criminally liable, and removing only the drug in question from Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement. Innocent third parties would be shielded from the devastating consequences of having all the company’s pharmaceuticals excluded.

Copeland explains in this brief Penn State Law video what prompted her research. Her recent paper, “Enforcing Integrity” offers more details about her proposed solutions.