This Week in Research: Chronic Itchiness and the Unmarried Poor

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Artist Tim Phelps's rendition of the pain-versus-itch stimulants.  Department of Art as Applied to Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, 2012
Artist Tim Phelps’s rendition of the pain-versus-itch stimulants. Department of Art as Applied to Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, 2012

First off, congratulations are due to Johns Hopkins, which made it onto Futurity.org’s “Top 10 Stories of 2012” — twice. The university’s research on a toxic weed that might help cure cancer was the sciencey site’s second most-read story of the year, and “How much vitamin D is too much?” ranked fourth.

But that’s old news! This week, we’re excited (and, to be honest, a little itchy) to read that neuroscientists at Hopkins have discovered itch-specific nerve cells in mice. These are receptors that register itch but not pain — a crucial difference, and one that can get scrambled in people who have chronic itchiness. (Think that doesn’t sound all that bad, as diseases go? I dare you to read this New Yorker story about a woman with chronic itch — who scratched through her scalp to her brain!)

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Perhaps you’ve seen them around Baltimore:  billboards that encourage people to get married by claiming that married people earn more money and live longer. Research bears those statistics out, but according to Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin, the problems that we should be addressing are not so much commitment issues and relationship skills, but simple economics.

In an op-ed for Bloomberg News, Cherlin notes that middle-class and college-educated Americans have seen rising rates of marriage, while their less-educated counterparts are more hesitant to marry. “Is it just a coincidence that the winners in our globalized and automated economy are turning toward marriage while the losers are turning away?,” he asks. Ultimately, Cherlin argues that less educated Americans aren’t getting married because of financial issues, not a lack of interest or bad values. (That’s why the extensive Bush-era program to instill relationship skills pretty much failed.) “Perhaps these programs will be more effective at helping young adults whose fundamental problem is not values or communication but rather finding a decent-paying, steady job. Making a place for these young adults in a transformed economy may be our best hope of promoting stable relationships,” Cherlin writes.



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