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Laughter Is the Best Medicine

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While the author of the Book of Proverbs remains uncertain (most likely, King Solomon wrote it), its intent is not. The book was written to share insight, and much conventional wisdom originates in its pages. Proverbs 17:22, "a merrie heart doth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones," has transformed into the popular saying, "Laughter is the best medicine." It turns out that King Solomon, et al., were right: Laughing has medicinal applications.

Robin Dunbar, from Oxford University, led a team of researchers who evaluated laughter and its impact on pain perception in the lab and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In the lab, participants watched clips of South Park or The Simpsons before or after researchers exposed the subjects to painful experiences—either by tightening a blood pressure cuff on them or slipping a wine chiller on their arms. At the festival, before and after performances, participants stood against a wall with their legs bent at a 90-degree angle as if they were sitting in a chair until it became so painful they fell on the ground. (My pilates instructor makes us do this, but she calls it a workout.)

Previous research suggested that laughter dulls pain, and Dunbar found evidence that supports this claim.

Groups that either watched or participated in comedy felt less pain than their peers, who watched a documentary. And he found that people who laughed more had an even higher pain threshold than those who only let a few giggles escape. Chuckling with others also increased laughter's positive impact; people are 30 times more likely to laugh in a group than alone. Dunbar believes that laughing triggers endorphins—neurotransmitters produced by the pituitary gland and hypothalamus, which spark a feeling of comfort similar to what occurs when someone takes an opiate. Love, excitement, spicy foods, orgasms, exercise, and pain all cause the brain to produce endorphins, which also provide an analgesic effect.

Dunbar further examined the two types of laughter, Duchenne and non-Duchenne. Duchenne laughter is the type of natural chuckle that people experience when they see or hear something funny, which is often contagious. This giggling involves the contractions of the orbicularis oculi muscle (the muscle that enables the eyelids to close) and Dunbar suspects that this packs more pain relief than non-Duchenne laughter, which is emotionless and context-driven and does not involve any muscle activity. Duchenne laughter might be so effective because it involves muscle activity much like exercise or a massage, both of which release endorphins.

Dunbar writes:

"The capacity to sustain laughter for periods of several minutes at a time may exaggerate the opioid effects, thus ramping up the sense of heightened affect that humans experience in these contexts. A key aspect of this may be that social (or Duchenne) laughter is highly socially synchronized. In a study of physical exercise (rowing), synchronized activity ramped up endorphin production."

So next time you're in pain, try watching something funny and having a laugh. It might just help.
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Shown above: The Yue Minjun "Amazing Laughter" sculpture in Vancouver, BC, photographed by Flickr user Matthew Grapengeiser

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Not Sure About Your Tap Water? Here's How to Test for Contaminants
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In the wake of Flint, Michigan's water crisis, you may have begun to wonder: Is my tap water safe? How would I know? To put your mind at ease—or just to satisfy your scientific curiosity—you can find out exactly what's in your municipal water pretty easily, as Popular Science reports. Depending on where you live, it might even be free.

A new water quality test called Tap Score, launched on Kickstarter in June 2017, helps you test for the most common household water contaminants for $120 per kit. You just need to take a few samples, mail them to the lab, and you'll get the results back in 10 days, telling you about lead levels, copper and cadmium content, arsenic, and other common hazardous materials that can make their way into water via pipes or wells. If you're mostly worried about lead, you can get a $40 test that only tells you about the lead and copper content of your water.

In New York State, a free lead-testing program will send you a test kit on request that allows you to send off samples of your water to a state-certified lab for processing, no purchase required. A few weeks later, you'll get a letter with the results, telling you what kind of lead levels were found in your water. This option is great if you live in New York, but if your state doesn't offer free testing (or only offers it to specific locations, like schools), there are other budget-friendly ways to test, too.

While mailing samples of your water off to a certified lab is the most accurate way to test your water, you can do it entirely at home with inexpensive strip tests that will only set you back $10 to $15. These tests aren't as sensitive as lab versions, and they don't test for as many contaminants, but they can tell you roughly whether you should be concerned about high levels of toxic metals like lead. The strip tests will only give you positive or negative readings, though, whereas the EPA and other official agencies test for the concentration of contaminants (the parts-per-billion) to determine the safety of a water source. If you're truly concerned with what's in your water, you should probably stick to sending your samples off to a professional, since you'll get a more detailed report of the results from a lab than from a colored strip.

In the future, there will likely be an even quicker way to test for lead and other metals—one that hooks up to your smartphone. Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old from Colorado, won the 2017 Young Scientist Challenge by inventing Tethys, a faster lead-testing device than what's currently on the market. With Tethys, instead of waiting for a lab, you can get results instantly. It's not commercially available yet, though, so for now, we'll have to stick with mail-away options.

[h/t Popular Science]

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Medicine
Bill Gates is Spending $100 Million to Find a Cure for Alzheimer's
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Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Not everyone who's blessed with a long life will remember it. Individuals who live into their mid-80s have a nearly 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's, and scientists still haven't discovered any groundbreaking treatments for the neurodegenerative disease [PDF]. To pave the way for a cure, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has announced that he's donating $100 million to dementia research, according to Newsweek.

On his blog, Gates explained that Alzheimer's disease places a financial burden on both families and healthcare systems alike. "This is something that governments all over the world need to be thinking about," he wrote, "including in low- and middle-income countries where life expectancies are catching up to the global average and the number of people with dementia is on the rise."

Gates's interest in Alzheimer's is both pragmatic and personal. "This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s," he said. "I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you're experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew."

Experts still haven't figured out quite what causes Alzheimer's, how it progresses, and why certain people are more prone to it than others. Gates believes that important breakthroughs will occur if scientists can understand the condition's etiology (or cause), create better drugs, develop techniques for early detection and diagnosis, and make it easier for patients to enroll in clinical trials, he said.

Gates plans to donate $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund that supports Alzheimer's research and treatment developments. The rest will go to research startups, Reuters reports.

[h/t Newsweek]

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