The Why Files The Why Files --

April's Cool (And so is our roundup of offbeat science)


'whyfiles' brand gum pieces coming out of boxGum-chew, gum shoe
Some people can't get through the day without chewing gum. Others wonder why anybody chomps. But who thought gum chewing could speed recovery from surgery? In February, doctors at Santa Barbara (Calif.) Cottage Hospital studied 34 patients after surgery to remove a diseased piece of colon. The colon typically responds to surgery by shutting down its contractions, causing pain, vomiting and misery.

Could this gum hold the secret to a fast recovery from abdominal surgery?

The patients who chewed sugarless gum three times a day after surgery left the hospital in 4.3 days, on average, while the non-chewers lingered for 6.8 days. In another a sign of quick recovery, the gum-chewers also had much earlier bowel movements. The researchers suggested that chewing may stimulate the same nerves as eating, promoting the release of hormones that activate the gastrointestinal tract.

In a low-key comment, the researchers wrote that gum-chewing may be an "inexpensive and helpful adjunct to postoperative care after colectomy." "Inexpensive?" When was the last time these folks stepped inside a pharmacy?

Leeching to remove excess or "tainted" blood is an old medical treatment. But leeches are parasites, and few of us associate parasites -- especially big, visible bloodsuckers-- with healing.

Slimy leech in water sits on table next to small  bottle with lid on it.
The artificial leech is simpler and less fearsome than the natural prototype. "Natural healing" may be the rage, but when it comes to leeching, we predict patient will opt for the "artificial" solution. Photo: Jeff Miller, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Still, leeches are excellent for removing extra blood after reconstructive surgery. "The arteries pump blood into the reconstructed tissue, but the associated veins do not let the blood flow out," says Nadine Connor, an assistant professor of surgery at University of Wisconsin-Madison. "The excess blood ... can deprive the tissue of oxygen and other nutrients and can cause it to die,"

Still, many patients are reluctant to host a spineless parasite during recovery.

In 2001, Connor and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed a mechanical leech to promote blood flow without the squeamish side effect. Just like a real leech, the artificial one "drinks" blood while releasing chemicals to prevent clotting. But the artificial leech avoids the mental wear and tear associated with the "natural" remedy.

Learning while moving?
Kids are getting fatter, but kids like to move, and moving burns calories. So why chain kids to a desk in school? Those observations have sparked a Rochester, Minn. collaboration that is putting fourth and fifth graders in a desk-free classroom. The kids will spend a week in a classroom located inside an athletic club. In place of desks, the room has wireless laptop computers, wireless activity monitor and a raft of other technology.

Organizations that promote activity as an anti-obesity strategy hope the project will show how a more active lifestyle can stanch that chub growing near the equator. Results are not yet available, but one Mayo Clinic expert has shown that everyday activities can burn more calories than deliberate exercise. No word on how the researchers plan to chain the kids back to their desks after that week of liberty....

Obese blonde boy sits on chair pigging out on chips, soda and other high calorie foods.
Hey, kid! Put down those chips and do something! Photo: NIH

Colder than the grave
Researchers have discovered what they call a "super-Earth" orbiting a star about 9,000 light years distant. But you might not want to visit. This critter is 13 times as massive as Earth, making its gravity 13 times stronger. And it's a mind-numbing 330° F below zero. The planet seems to be rocky, like earth, not gaseous, like Jupiter, and it's one of the smallest planets discovered.

The discovery relied on gravitational lensing -- the bending of light by the gravity of massive objects -- and puts us one step closer to seeing Earth-size planets in the great beyond.

But what struck us was not the finding so much as the branding. By labeling this cold, distant, and possibly lifeless lump of rsock "super-Earth," the discoverers clearly wanted to attract attention. In fact, branding was everywhere in a project that got help from research collaborations called "MicroFUN" and "OGLE."

More weird science.


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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