Tis the Season

Rudolph and his amazing nasal microvasculature
The halls are decked, the lights are up, and the presents are wrapped and sit enticingly under the tree. Outside there is light snow falling, and somewhere in the distance I can hear Bing Crosby crooning. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. There are elves in the hallways, Christmas cookies around every corner, and Santa hats appearing in people’s cubicles. The signs of festivity are everywhere, even in the unlikeliest of places…

Last week I came across the British Medical Journal Christmas Edition for 2012. Not being a regular reader, I was unaware of this delightful annual tradition. The Christmas edition features spoof articles and whimsical studies, presented with thorough methods sections and all the usual accompaniments of a well-considered scientific article. Here are a few of my favorites from this year’s edition:

Why Rudolph’s nose is red: Observational study

The abstract summarizes the goal of this study as “testing the hypothesis that the luminous red nose of Rudolph, one of the most well known reindeer pulling Santa Claus’s sleigh, is due to the presence of a highly dense and rich nasal microcirculation”. Study subjects included five healthy volunteers, two adult reindeer, and one patient with nasal polyposis. The details of the study are well-described in a thorough methods section, and the results show a clear red nose on an infrared image of a reindeer’s head after a treadmill test. The study concludes that the use of vital video microscopy has solved an age-old mystery, demonstrating that the richly vascularized nasal mucosa of the reindeer help to keep the nose from freezing during sleigh rides and may also help regulate the temperature of the reindeer’s brain.

Read more about Rudolph research

Using a dog’s superior olfactory sensitivity to identify Clostridium difficile in stools and patients: Proof of principle study
This paper summarizes the results of a study using a trained dog (a Beagle) to identify the pathogen C. difficile among a study group of 300 patients in two Dutch hospitals. The dogs accuracy rate was 100%, and he appeared able to detect the pathogen simply by sniffing the air around an infected individual. Limitations of the study, such as the fact that only one dog was involved, are discussed openly, as are the safety issues raised by the deployment of dogs in a hospital setting (When at work, he neither barks nor shows aggression, is easily recognized by his outfit (illustrated in figure 1 of the paper), and is always on a leash”)
Read more doggy diagnosis

Pain over speed bumps in diagnosis of acute appendicitis: Diagnostic accuracy study
The subjects of this study were 101 patients who were referred to a UK hospital for assessment of potential appendicitis. Sixty-four of these participants had travelled over speed bumps on their way to the hospital, and 34 of them reported pain when traversing the bump. Of these 34, 33 did have appendicitis. This translated to a sensitivity rate of 97%, rendering the speed bump test more effective at predicting appendicitis than other diagnostic tools. The visual learner will particularly appreciate Figure 1 of the paper, which is an excellent encapsulation of the authors findings.

Read more about this unexpected benefit of speed bumps

I enjoyed the Figures and the Methods sections of these studies. If you have a few minutes over the holiday season, sit down with a glass of egg nog and enjoy these and the other contents of the Christmas issue.

Happy Holidays!

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Isobel Maciver

Isobel Maciver

Isobel is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and of Aston University in Birmingham, U.K. She is a technical writer and editor, and is also manager of the Scientific Communications group at Promega. She enjoys writing about issues in science and communication.

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