Harvard Researchers: Make Police Killings A Matter Of Public Health

In this Oct. 20, 2014, frame from dash-cam video provided by the Chicago Police Department, Laquan McDonald, right, walks down the street moments before being shot by officer Jason Van Dyke in Chicago. Van Dyke has now been charged with murder. (Chicago Police Department via AP)

In this Oct. 20, 2014, frame from dash-cam video provided by the Chicago Police Department, Laquan McDonald, right, walks down the street moments before being shot by officer Jason Van Dyke in Chicago. Van Dyke has now been charged with murder. (Chicago Police Department via AP)

By Richard Knox

Every week, it seems, a new police killing enters the news stream, sparking outrage, breeding cynicism, fraying still further the social compact between police and communities.

The issue reached a new peak just this week, when the Justice Department announced a probe of the Chicago Police Department, the nation’s second-largest, to determine if there has been “systematic misconduct.” The investigation comes in the wake of social unrest and the recent firing of the police commissioner, after two police killings there.

In fact, police killings happen in America far more often than once a week.

The best available data come from news organizations, such as a website launched earlier this year, ironically enough, by the British newspaper The Guardian. They show that U.S. civilians die at the hands of police nearly three times a day. So far this year, 1,055 Americans have been killed by police, by The Guardian count. The Washington Post has tallied up 913 people “shot dead by police this year.”

About 120 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty last year, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

Run through the Guardian’s website of civilian police-related deaths, called “The Counted,” and you’ll see that many of these everyday police killings involve suspects who were armed and menacing. The 14 people killed in the past week include the San Bernardino shooters and others who reportedly were threatening police officers. These are not the kind of cases that generate Black Lives Matter protests, although they shouldn’t necessarily be classified as justifiable use-of-force without careful investigation, either.

“No act of Congress is needed,” they write. “No police departments need to be involved. Public health agencies can do the job.”

The typical investigation focuses on the circumstances and actions in a specific case. But larger forces may be driving the phenomenon as well, forces that don’t get identified in case-by-case investigations. And that’s just the point of a new proposal, out Tuesday, that makes a strong case for collecting data on law enforcement-related deaths a matter of public health.

The authors, from the Harvard School of Public Health, assert that these killings — both by and of police — should be “notifiable” to public health agencies, just like homicides, suicides, many infectious disease deaths, work-related fatalities and injuries, and death by poisoning, fire and spinal cord injuries. That means they should as a matter of law be reported to health departments; currently police-related deaths are reportedly voluntarily (or not).

The Harvard researchers write, in the journal PLoS/Medicine, that death and injury due to police encounters are “a matter of public health, not just criminal justice, as is the occupational health of law-enforcement officials.”

“Deaths are part of our bailiwick,” lead author Nancy Krieger says.

She argues that only by compiling data on a national basis (but with details specific to local jurisdictions) can public health scientists identify time trends, racial-ethnic and geographical disparities, and other relevant indicators. And only then can they put these events in context with, say, the racial makeup of communities and police forces.

Such data now are fragmentary and delayed. Using what’s available, the researchers charted arrest-related deaths in eight U.S. cities at the top of The Guardian’s rankings, along with some recent hotspots such as Ferguson, Missouri.

“We show enormous variability over time among the eight cities,” Krieger says.

Take, for instance, the critical issue of black-white differences in who dies as the result of a police encounter. Continue reading

Healthy Narcissism? 8 Ways To Be (A Bit) More Like Donald Trump

Donald Trump displays a copy of his net worth during his announcement that he will seek the Republican nomination for president, on June 16, in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York. (Richard Drew/AP)

Donald Trump displays a copy of his net worth during his announcement that he will seek the Republican nomination for president, on June 16, in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York. (Richard Drew/AP)

Donald Trump is often described as a textbook case of the downsides of extreme narcissism — the cruelty, the conceit. But the Republican presidential front-runner’s success in business and politics raises this uncomfortable question: What if he also exemplifies the upsides of narcissism? And what if it would behoove many of us to be a bit more like him?

Your knee-jerk response may be, “I don’t want to emulate Donald Trump in any way!” But can we take just the useful pages from his playbook and leave out the ugly parts?

I put that query to Dr. Craig Malkin, author of the new book, “Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad — And Surprising Good — About Feeling Special.” A clinical psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, he begins with a massive disclaimer: “I would not advise anyone to emulate Donald Trump in a lot of the ways that he behaves.”

But broadly speaking, he says, it’s a myth that narcissism is all bad. In fact, narcissism is a trait, not a diagnosis, Malkin says; it’s a drive to feel special. And it exists on a spectrum, unhealthy mainly at the extremes.

“We are surrounded by this idea of empty, soulless, dangerous narcissists, and there are people like that out there,” he says. “But the reality is, what we see in the research is that there are healthy aspects, and they coexist, often, with the unhealthy in people who are extremely narcissistic. So you get the good with the bad.” Continue reading

Just Sip It: More Than Half Of U.S. Kids Not Properly Hydrated



One statistic jumped out at me from this study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health about whether U.S. kids are drinking enough water: “Nearly a quarter of the children and adolescents in the study reported drinking no plain water at all.”

When you think about the kinds of serious health problems your kids might have, not drinking quite enough water may not top your list.

But it’s serious: beyond the physical problems related to insufficient water-drinking, there are cognitive implications as well, researchers report:

Inadequate hydration has implications for children’s health and school performance. Drinking water can improve children’s performance on cognitive tests. Two studies have found that children’s cognitive performance improved as their urine osmolality [a measure of urine concentration] decreased. Increasing drinking water access in schools may be a key strategy for reducing inadequate hydration and improving student health, because schools reach so many children and adolescents and that they typically provide free drinking water to students.

The study was published online in the American Journal of Public Health.

I asked Erica Kenney, a postdoctoral researcher and one of the study authors, a few questions about the work. Here, lightly edited, is what she said, via email.

RZ: What’s the takeaway here?

EK: We often take for granted that kids will keep themselves hydrated automatically and will drink when they’re thirsty, or that their schools, summer camps, afterschool programs, child care centers, etc. will be providing them with enough opportunities to drink water during the day. But our study indicates that this may not be the case — over half of all children and adolescents in the U.S. are estimated to be inadequately hydrated. We need to do a better job of getting safe, clean, appealing drinking water to kids (and by “we” I don’t just mean parents and families — I also mean the places where kids learn and play during the day) and keeping them hydrated so that they have the opportunity to be at their best in terms of well-being, cognitive functioning, and mood.

Where do we go from here? Continue reading

Research News Flash: Scientists Grow Cells For Possible Diabetes Cure

Human Stem Cell Beta Cells/Photo Courtesy Doug Melton, Harvard University

Human Stem Cell Beta Cells/Photo Courtesy Doug Melton, Harvard University

In what is being called a major advance on the road toward more effective diabetes treatment, Harvard researchers report that they’ve been able to grow large quantities of human, insulin-producing pancreatic “beta cells” from human embryonic stem cells. Why is this important?

As the leader of this massive, years-long effort, Doug Melton, the superstar Harvard stem cell researcher said in a news conference Tuesday: “This finding provides a kind of unprecedented cell source that could be used both for drug discovery and cell transplantation therapy in diabetes.” And as NPR’s Rob Stein put it: “The long-sought advance could eventually lead to new ways to help millions of people with diabetes.”

Reporter Karen Weintraub, writing for National Geographic, describes why the research, conducted in diabetic mice, has taken so long, with so many twists and turns:

The researchers started with cells taken from a days-old human embryo. At that point, the cells are capable of turning into any cell in the body. Others have tried to make beta cells from these human embryonic stem cells, but never fully succeeded. Melton’s team spent a decade testing hundreds of combinations before finally coaxing the stem cells into becoming beta cells.

“If you were going to make a fancy kind of raspberry chocolate cake with vanilla frosting, you’d pretty much know all the components you have to add, but it’s the way you add them and the order and the timing, how long you cook it” that makes the difference, Melton, also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, said at [the] news conference. “The solution took a long time.”

Here’s (a lot) more detail from the Harvard news release, written by B.D. Colen:

Harvard stem cell researchers today announced that they have made a giant leap forward in the quest to find a truly effective treatment for type 1 diabetes, a condition that affects an estimated three million Americans at a cost of about $15 billion annually.

With human embryonic stem cells as a starting point, the scientists are for the first time able to produce, in the kind of massive quantities needed for cell transplantation and pharmaceutical purposes, human insulin-producing beta cells equivalent in most every way to normally functioning beta cells.

Doug Melton, who led the work and who twenty-three years ago, when his then infant son Sam was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, dedicated his career to finding a cure for the disease, said he hopes to have human transplantation trials using the cells to be underway within a few years.

“We are now just one pre-clinical step away from the finish line,” said Melton, whose daughter Emma also has type 1 diabetes.

A report on the new work has today been published by the journal Cell. Continue reading

At Harvard And Beyond, Flame Retardants Under Fire

By Karen Weintraub
Guest contributor

Is that armchair you’re about to sink into bad for your health?

Quite possibly, according to a growing body of research that is raising questions about flame retardants — used on couches and myriad household items so they don’t combust — and the toxic chemicals they release into the air. Things have gotten so bad that Harvard, under pressure from students and faculty, is considering eliminating flame retardant dorm furniture from campus.



Flame retardants, also known as PBDE’s (Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers) are ubiquitous, required since the 1970s by fire marshals in every state and community, and promoted by the chemical industry that makes them. But critics say they’re problematic — both in everyday use and when burned – and their effectiveness at stopping fires is also being questioned.

Flame retardants accumulate in the blood stream and can cause endocrine disruption — essentially mucking with hormones needed to grow, reproduce, and think and avoid cancer, according to studies in animals. They also release cancer-causing chemicals like dioxin when burned, said Robin Dodson, a research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute, an environmental group. Their impact is particularly significant in young children and during pregnancy, research suggests.

Now, the tide of public opinion is turning against these chemicals, with intense lobbying in California, which led the nation in setting high standards and is now revising them.

Harvard’s administration said last week that it will do what it can to respond to student requests to get rid of flame retardants on campus. Continue reading

Harvard-MIT Study: Your Ear Is A (Very Weak) Battery

(Wikimedia Commons)

I must be really punchy in a post-election way, but this news release just sent over by Nature fills me with ineffable technophilic delight and makes me want to sing “My ear is a battery” to the tune of “My Heart’s Like A Kick Drum“:

Biotechnology: Battery power from the ear

The battery-like electrochemical gradient that naturally exists in the inner ear of a mammal has been harvested for the first time and used to power a small wireless transmitter. As reported in a study published online this week in Nature Biotechnology, with further optimization, this approach may one day serve to power drug-delivery vehicles, molecular sensors or other devices implanted in the vicinity of the human ear, such as hearing aids.
The ‘endocochlear potential’ in the inner ear is the only electrochemical potential in animals that occurs across such a large anatomical structure. A major challenge in capturing the energy of the endocochlear potential is that the voltage and extractable power are very low—at least ten times lower than what can be captured using the most efficient existing circuits.
Anantha Chandrakasan, Konstantina Stankovic and colleagues overcame this challenge using a specially designed electronics chip. With the chip placed on the surface of an anesthetized guinea pig and connected to tiny electrodes embedded in the cochlea, the authors succeeded in extracting ~1 nW of power for as long as 5 hours, which was enough power to run a wireless radio that transmitted measurements of the endocochlear potential.

Fed Report Finds Research Misconduct By Harvard’s Hauser

Was Harvard’s Marc Hauser too invested in his own hypotheses?

The federal Office of Research Integrity has just posted its report on Marc Hauser, the charismatic Harvard professor whose stellar career blew up in scandal last summer when he was accused of fudging his data. The Globe continues its leading streak on this story with today’s report by Carolyn Johnson here, including this:

Marc Hauser, a prolific scientist and popular psychology professor who last summer resigned from Harvard University, had fabricated data, manipulated results in multiple experiments, and described how experiments were conducted in factually incorrect ways, according to the findings of a federal research oversight agency posted online Wednesday.

The report provides the greatest insight yet into the problems that triggered a secretive three-year internal university investigation that concluded in 2010 that Hauser, a star professor and public intellectual, had committed eight instances of scientific misconduct. The document, which will be published in the Federal Register Thursday, found six cases in which Hauser engaged in research misconduct in work supported by the National Institutes of Health. One paper was retracted and two were corrected, and other problems were found in unpublished work.

Read the full Globe story here. And check out our past stories on Hauser, whose writing included fascinating work on whether morality is hard-wired. (One wonders: If it is, did he have a glitch in a circuit?) They include The Marc Hauser Files: Was It Confirmation Bias?, The Marc Hauser Counter-Offensive Begins and Monkey Business: Harvard Details Hauser’s Misconduct.

Born This Way: Lady Gaga, Harvard Join Forces

It’s not often that you get to write about Lady Gaga and Harvard in the same sentence, but here it is: The inimitable meat-wearing diva announced today that she’ll officially launch the new Born This Way Foundation, partnering with Harvard, among others to “reach youth and create a new culture of kindness, bravery, acceptance and empowerment.”

Here’s the press release announcing the debut event, Feb. 29 at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre:

Born This Way Foundation to partner with The John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The California Endowment, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Harvard Graduate School of Education on event

Los Angeles, CA (January 19, 2012) – Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, announced today that they will officially launch the Born This Way Foundation (BTWF) on Wednesday, February 29th, 2012 at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. Lady Gaga will be joined by some very special guests as she personally unveils BTWF before a crowd of policy makers, non-profit organizations, foundation leaders and youth themselves who are working to create a kinder and braver world. The one-day event will be co-hosted by BTWF, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and The California Endowment.

“My daughter’s foundation was born out of her passion to create a better world where people are kinder and nicer to one another and are accepted for who they are, regardless of how different they may be,” said Cynthia Germanotta. “She has experienced many of the struggles that our youth encounter today, and identifies with the lasting effects they can have without proper support. Together, we look forward to creating a new movement that will engage and empower youth and accept them as valuable members of our society.” Continue reading

Larry Summers On Health Reform: Bottom Up Is Better Than Top Down

Economist Lawrence Summers

He began with a great disclaimer, avowing that he had no special expertise on health care. Then he proceeded to sum up the country’s whole health care mess with such perfect pithiness that it made my toes curl.

Uber-economist Lawrence Summers, former secretary of the U.S. Treasury and former controversial president of Harvard, spoke yesterday at the inaugural Health Policy Symposium at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He’s back at Harvard now as a professor, and mostly speaks at note-taking speed, but I’ve had to paraphrase here and there. I’ll begin with the ending, which felt a bit like the kind of “Go forth and do good work” benediction he might have offered graduating Harvard seniors:

“This is all very, very difficult. And I guess the thought that I would want to leave you with, assessing this debate from the outside, is that if there is a happy end to this tale — if, looking back from 2030, we’re seeing that not just was the arc of justice bent towards liberty but the arc of health care costs was bent toward flatness —  if that is what we look forward to, I think it is less likely that it came from a sweeping act of Congress and it is more likely that it came from widely emulated innovation in individual settings.

That it came from hospitals that found creative and inventive way to improve the quality of care and cut costs, and then whose procedure was so compelling that it had to be emulated elsewhere.

We are much more likely to succeed…from the bottom up than we are from the top down.

That it came from cities where coalitions of hospital providers and major employers worked out improved reimbursement understandings, found ways of fine-tuning reimbursements so that costs grew less rapidly.

We are much more likely to succeed, both with respect to the cost-containment challenge and with respect to the closely related quality challenge, from the bottom up than we are from the top down.

So my hope…would be that just as we live in a remarkable period of scientific innovation, we can live in a remarkable period of institutional innovation — and, if you like, social scientific innovation that points toward emulatable solutions to these problems.

President Clinton used to say that there was no problem in American education that had not been solved somewhere in America, and I suspect that most of the problems in health care have been solved somewhere in America. And our challenge is to match scientific innovation with innovation in patterns of practice, in provision of incentives, in monitoring and rewarding of outcomes.

It’s a feature of exponential growth that the stakes get larger every year. I think we are going to succeed with respect to broadening the availability of coverage very substantially, but I cannot claim that we’re securely on a path toward better cost-containment or improvement of quality. I think that’s the task for all of you.”

Now back to the beginning: Continue reading

Breathing Easier: Asthma And The Placebo Effect

Asthmatics report improvement in symptoms after taking placebo medications

Asthma can be terrifying. One minute you’re breathing, the next, you’re gasping for air. I’ll never forget my little brother, chest heaving, rushed to the emergency room during middle-of-the-night attacks.

But despite its dramatic and objectively physical nature, asthma is also a disease with an element of subjectivity.

That point is elegantly underscored in a new study just published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Harvard Medical School investigators found that when asthma patients were treated with the medication albuterol, their lung function improved significantly compared to those given placebo, or fake, treatments. However, and here’s the rub, when the same patients were asked to report how they were feeling — a subjective measure — placebo treatments turned out to be as effective as real medicine in helping to relieve asthma symptoms and alleviate patients’ discomfort.

Indeed, the placebo effect seemed to be on full display here: whether patients were on albuterol, the placebo inhaler or undergoing sham acupuncture (which feels real, but in fact uses trick needles that don’t penetrate the skin) they all reported significant symptomatic improvement compared to little improvement among patients who got no treatment at all.

The takeaway, researchers agree, is that there’s something therapeutic about the act of treatment itself, the ritual of care and the reassuring bond between doctor and patient that makes people feel better, whether or not their treatment includes pills or drugs with an active ingredient. Continue reading