Friday, January 11, 2008

And Thus Said Barker

In the course of researching for a paper, I came across a very interesting concept. In the present day when a number of diseases ail us, it might be worth considering this theory. With the progress of biomedical sciences, we have been successfully able to combat a number of diseases to a great extent, if not totally. Not many people die of small pox, chicken pox, or cholera these days unless they live in extreme poverty and stressful situations. Yet a number of diseases that were not in extant even a 100 years back are now on the rise (diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, strokes). Most of them are directly related to our lifestyle, like a persistent period of improper diet, lack of exercise, stressful living, etc. So in theory, the prevalence of these diseases can be substantially lessened if we lead a healthy life.

So what new does the Barker Hypothesis say that we don’t already know? Eat well, sleep well, exercise daily, don’t stress out, and there you will stay healthy. But wait, the Barker Hypothesis throws a different light to the situation. Also called the Fetal Origin Hypothesis, this is what it says-

Apart from the lifestyle we lead, what we suffer from as adults could depend on what we were exposed to in-utero (in the womb). In other words when we were in the womb, if we got exposed to certain chemicals, drugs, metabolites, etc., we could be more prone to suffering from certain diseases in the later stages of life. We might not show any manifestations of it during our childhood or even in youth, but as we progress towards mid-life, we are prone to suffer from a number of diseases.

In other words, what we suffer from during old age depends a lot on what we were exposed to in our mother’s womb? That’s correct.

So what diseases are we talking about here?

Parkinson’s disease. Cardiovascular disease. Heart attacks. Male reproductive malfunction. You just name it.

Exposure to the pesticide DIELDRIN during pregnancy is predicted to cause serious health concerns to the fetus, increasing its risk of suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Though Parkinson’s disease is a disease of the brain and the neurons primarily concerning the elderly population, experimental and epidemiological finding suggests that the process of neurodegeneration begins much before. Thus developmental exposure to dieldrin causes persistent change in the dopaminergic system due to increased susceptibility to Parkinson’s disease. In other words, if your mom was exposed to pesticides when she conceived you, you in your old age will be prone to suffer from Parkinson’s disease.

Exposure to DIETHYLSTILBESTROL (DES) (a clinical agent) in pregnant women caused cervico-vaginal adenocarcinoma in their daughters. The carcinogen (DES) was taken by the mother, but the cancer appeared in the offspring and that too, only after the onset of puberty.

It is interesting to note further that women who were not themselves exposed to DES in-utero may have altered reproductive tract function if their mothers had been exposed in utero. This meant that maternal ingestion of DES during pregnancy could not only alter the reproductive capacity of the woman exposed directly with the fetus, but that the alteration may be passed on to another generation (the so-called DES granddaughter effect). So lets say your mom was exposed to pesticides and you were fine, but your daughter is at the risk of having reproductive anomalies just because your mother was exposed to pesticides and you were a silent carrier.

These effects are not just related to exposure to chemicals like DES and Dieldrin, but to biological factors (like undernourishment of the fetus leading to lower birth weight) as well. It goes like this. Fetal undernourishment in middle to late gestation leads to disproportionate fetal growth, and causes coronary heart disease later in life. This means that if your mom did not eat properly when she was pregnant with you, you are at a risk of developing coronary heart diseases when you are of middle age. Human studies have shown that men and women whose birth weights were at the lower end of the normal range, who were thin or short at birth, or who were small in relation to placental size have increased rates of coronary heart disease. Evidences and research findings show that coronary heart disease is associated with specific patterns of disproportionate fetal growth that result from fetal undernourishment in middle to late gestation. So undernourishment during pregnancy could make your child prone to having heart diseases and health related disorders later on in life.

Talking about low birth weight? Did you know that exposure to phthalates like DBP and DEHP could cause fetal low birth weight? And how might women be exposed to these compounds? Through the use of make up, nail polish, perfumes, creams, and body lotions. Although the cosmetics industry have come up with a lot of their own arguments, it still remains a fact that usage of perfumes and cosmetics with phthalates in them increases the chances of delivering low birth weight babies.

I will not go into the complicated mechanisms of how these happen, but would like to clarify certain things. All these findings include working with animal (mainly rodent) models as well as human models, and there is scope of a lot more research. Secondly, there is nothing concrete like a cause and effect relationship. Exposure to certain substances only make us more prone to suffer from certain diseases, doesn’t mean everyone in a population will start showing similar effects. We are all different, and in the complexity of this lie the beauty of biological sciences. But the take home message should be clear. We should definitely be more aware of the stuff we are exposed to, more so during our child-bearing years. For what we are exposed to could also affect the destiny of our future generations. I don’t mean be paranoid about the situation and take extreme steps to ensure you live in an axenic environment. That is not possible. But it doesn’t harm to be more conscious about our own bodies, health, and environment. No matter what, we will always be exposed to certain unwanted substances, and despite everything, our immune system will always devise new strategies to cope up. That is what evolution is all about.

For people who are interested in further readings, just google “Barker Hypothesis” and you’ll find the rest. Stay healthy, stay safe.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Be My Guest

The host becomes a ghost when you can hardly see her. At least that is what my friend preferred to think. A friend back from my days of India, we made it to the US together. So I was delighted when a few weeks back, she called me up to inform that she was visiting me for a week. I don’t usually get many visitors, certainly not someone taking an airplane and travelling all the way to see me. Needless to say, I created a table on a word document, put the dates on the left, and made a list of all the things I had planned for us.

Now there are certain phases you have in your academic life when things don’t go the way you want them to. It doesn’t happen all the time, in fact most of the times, a grad student’s life entails nothing a lot more than the optional chore of attending a few classes, spending a few hours in the lab, and then the compulsory chore of chilling out with friends. At least that was the way things were with me. But then my advisor came into the picture, we got a few demanding projects to work on, and the rest is history. To cut a long story short, the last few weeks have seen me spending early mornings till late nights in the lab. Monday through Sunday, 7 days a week. Christmas, New Year’s, and any other holiday you can think of. Of course I am not the only one, my advisor has been at work too, strategizing new means of kicking my ass, but yeah, that has pretty much been the picture. I don’t know for how many days straight I haven’t seen the sky getting dark. I come in as early as I can, and when I get back, it is dark and raining. I see everyone going home, but no one in the lab has seen me go home in the last few weeks. And it was very nice of my advisor to drive me home last night. That too at 1:30 am in the morning (oozing with sarcasm).

Sounds incredible, huh! Seems like I have been on the verge of making some path-breaking discovery, or the spirit of Einstein has possessed me? Naah, it is this stupid deadline, and the constant urge to make sure that funding did not run out.

However, for as long as my friend was staying with me, I tried my best to be a good host. Certainly not by the standards of how my family would host someone back at home, but certainly my own way. For a record, I actually started to rebel and take the 8 pm bus home. I would be home by 9, and then we would start to cook. I made sure that I cooked at home most of the days. It’s not that I am an exceptional cook, but most places would be closed and most friends would have made other plans by the time I reached home. Now I am not the cooking type, but that one only thing I did for her in the whole day gave me such satisfaction. We would chat incessantly while she chopped the onions and I heated the oil, and man, it was such fun.

Mornings would start with me waking her up, making some coffee, and that’s it. Soon, I would be running for my classes, and she would have plans for the day. And while she got ready and I got late, I would sneak out of the house with the note neatly tagged on the fridge. This note contained the bus routes for all the places she had planned to see that day. Yeah, you heard me right, barring Sunday, when I finally decided not to report to office (my advisor did come to work and as a protest, I refused to pick up my phone), my friend has been seeing the city on her own. And she darn well did a good job out of it. She didn’t whine or complain, she rather sympathized. And know what, she saw more of the city in a week than I have seen in a year. She went to these places that I have just heard of, but never been there.

After she left, I was reflecting on how good a host I have been. Certainly she had no problems with me working and she seeing the city on her own. She didn’t even have problems making tea for me while I worked or cleaning the dishes when I ws too tired to do them. But I thought of the way I had grown up seeing guests being welcomed at home, and I am sure ma would disown me if she saw what a ghostly host I have been.

Now many people have been guests at our place. But when it was a close friend, the person would have better places to sleep than on a mattress. I don’t even have a bed at home, not that I am too poor to afford one, but I have never had the need to. So my friend slept on the mattress. I did volunteer to cook every night we did not eat out, but it was nothing grand. Dinner rather consisted of something that I can quickly concoct without getting tired, and not the elaborate dishes mom spent making all day. So there was no home cooked biriyani and chicken kebabs, there was the simple bhindi masala and potato curry and stuffed veggie omelets and my customized raita with loads of bean sprouts topped with crushed potato chips. Dinner was served in disposable plates (my friend suggested that) so that not much time is spent doing the dishes. Certainly a far cry from the ornate sets of china we were used to having in whenever people visited us. While mom would spend the day showing people around, and dad too would take an occasional leave from work, I kept working half the weekend. The only thing I did was call my friend from office every day to make sure that she was not lost in the streets of the city and what time she was hoping to come home. And then I would usually come home much after she did (I gave her a set of my home keys), make coffee and some dinner cooked in 30 minutes, and eat in disposable plates. Even the day she was leaving, I had a deadline to submit in the morning. So I arranged for a cab, gave her a hug, and that’s about it. No seeing her off at the airport, no parting tears and no farewell gifts (mom usually made this farewell caramel pudding for everyone). What more, when she was leaving, I told her “Come again”, and though my “come again” was heartfelt, my insides laughed at me sarcastically at the “come again”.

It made me realize how different our lives become in a different country. My intentions of “atithi satkaar” were still with all my good faith effort, but circumstances did not permit me to take either a day off, or to show her around and cook well for her. What more, I got late on my way to pick her up the night she arrived at 10 pm, just because I was busy finishing off the grocery that I haven’t had the time to do before. I know she was totally fine with it, and perhaps I am feeling a little more than my deserved share of guilt. But mom and dad back in India failed to understand why it was so difficult for me to take time out of my schedule and show her around. I am so glad she came, as I did not have to go back to an empty house for a week. But all that I did was more out of my need for seeking company and reinstating my sociable instincts soon to become extinct.

Anyway, she reached fine and told me that she had one of the finest trips here. She loved the city, loved the places she went to, and loved the bhindi masala I cooked. She is hoping to be back in summer. Only I hope that I am more with the what you call “Aantorikota” (whatever that means in your language) and have more time for people in my life then. Sob!


Thursday, January 03, 2008


I was skimming through the newspapers while waiting for the food to warm up in the office microwave when my eyes fell on a bunch of calendars with the departmental name and logo neatly imprinted. And while my food warmed, I was transformed back to my childhood days for the next couple of minutes, to be interrupted only by the beep of the microwave.

Calendars. Diaries. Every January saw our homes piled up with these two things. In fact, I am still fond of collecting diaries, and it broke my heart to leave dozens of them never written on back at home when I moved here. But calendars are a different thing altogether. It used to be great watching the old ones from the walls vanish, to be replaced by new pictures. The worship room had that single paged huge Dey’s medical calendar every Bengali home wall must have had. The holiday dates would be marked in red, with the huge cross logo right in the middle of the page. And then every neighborhood mistanna bhandar (sweet shop) used to gift the usual smaller calendars with the photo of Ma Kali. The designs, photos, and the fonts changed every year, but the subject always remained the same- either Ma Kali, Thakur Ramkrishna Paramhansa, or Baba Loknath.

But then, dad used to get a totally different kind of calendar from his workplace. Scenery. Birds and flowers and bees. Great photography. Pics of sea coasts and sunsets and the ripples on the water. The picture of a bee on a flower with every yellow and black stripe on the bee’s abdomen distinct. Then there were snow mountains and forests. Those were the kinds where at the end of the year, I took a pair of scissors and went snip snip, cutting all the pictures I liked and collecting them neatly. Not Ma Kali or Baba Loknath, but pictures of the Eiffel Tower and the Florida beaches and the jungles of Africa. What more, they made excellent paper to cover books. So while I hated history in school, I made sure that the best pic of my favorite flower was used to cover the history text book. I guess that kind of made me less averse to touching my book every day.

The one I was holding in the office kitchen had every message written all over it- about conserving forests and protecting nature and aiming for a cleaner environment. Who uses calendars these days by the way? With the advent of mobile phones and Google calendars, who even needs to flip through the pages of a calendar to see what day was it the 15th of the last month?

But then, even now when I see a stack of free calendars somewhere, the heart somersaults in joy and the hand feels like picking up a copy for myself. They never really make their way to the walls, they just get lost somewhere in between the pile of books and newspapers. But somehow, someway, it brings back all the childhood excitement of flipping through the pages, to find one new picture every month. The only difference is, I no longer collect or hold on to the pictures at the end of the year. I just go get myself a new calendar.