SECOND OPINION | Are animals born with the ability to count?

In this week's roundup of interesting and eclectic news in health and medical science, we look at Canadian drug prices, Ontarians on opioids and how to slow down sperm.

Also: a new sort of birth control, and the surprising number of Ontarians on opioids

Can monkeys count well enough to do their taxes? (Shutterstock)

Hello and happy Saturday! Here's our roundup of the week's interesting and eclectic news in health and medical science.

If you haven't subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.

Are animals born with the ability to count?

Some scientists say yes, and point to examples where pigeons, dolphins and monkeys have learned to use symbols that represent quantities. And some neuroscientists believe an understanding of numbers is hardwired into animal brains, including humans, chickens and fish.

But University of California cognitive scientist Rafael Nunez says it's not that simple.

He argues in a paper published this week that there are lots of examples of human cultures, operating outside of the industrialized world, where people live happily for generations without having a specific word for a specific quantity —using concepts like "few" or "many" rather than "three" or "30."

"If we live in a culture where everything we do with quantity is with natural qualifiers — many, several, few, most, all —then we're fine," he told us. "We understand everything about quantity. We can raise kids, we can migrate, we can deal with seasons and planting and hunting and be perfectly successful."

You need a culture that is fascinated, preoccupied and obsessed with exact quantity to all of a sudden develop numbers that then you teach to kids.- Rafael  Nunez

But as commerce and trade evolved, and humans needed to be more specific about exact quantities, they invented counting systems and specific numbers-related vocabulary, he said. That contradicts what other experts in human and animal cognition have said — namely, that the brain has been shaped by evolution to see the world in numbers.

Nunez says knowing numbers is not natural; it's something we learn. 

"You need a culture that is fascinated, preoccupied and obsessed with exact quantity to all of a sudden develop numbers that then you teach to kids," Nunez said.

It's an interesting academic argument, but he insists there's a practical aspect to this research because, increasingly, neuroscience and neural wiring are being studied as a way to solve problems in education and learning.  

"It looks attractive and science-y and techy, but we miss the point that there's a lot of stuff going on there that is not biologically determined. It's culturally shaped," he said. "I think to solve many of the problems in education and society we need to understand that much better."

A novel approach to birth control: it's all in the tail

Scientists have discovered a chemical in plants that appears to target the tail of human sperm, slowing down its movement. Without that tail-power, sperm can't break through the protective layer of the egg. So slow down the tail, and presto! It's a novel form of birth control without hormones.

And it could work with both sexes.

The discovery follows research published last year into the specific chemical sequence needed for a sperm to fertilize an egg.

To give the sperm's tail enough power to penetrate the egg, a calcium ion channel called CatSper needs to be activated. And it turns out that certain hormones, including testosterone and cortisol, can prevent that activation.

Without tail power, sperm can’t break through the protective layer of the egg. (Shutterstock)

When Nadja Mannowetz discovered that, a light went on. What if there was a naturally occurring plant compound that could also shut down the power to the sperm's tail?

The University of California Berkeley scientist told us she got hold of a book called Anti-fertility Plants of the Pacific and found two plant compounds — pristimerin and lupeol — chemically similar to the hormones. And her tests showed both compounds could also prevent CatSper from activating.

More research is needed, but Mannowetz believes she's discovered a potential new form of birth control that might have several advantages over existing hormonal birth control, which can cause unwanted side effects, including blood clots.

The next phase in research is to test pristimerin and lupeol on non-human primates.

Time to stop comparing Canada to the U.S. when it comes to drug prices

Even though Canada has some of the highest drug prices in the world, they could be even higher if not for a federal agency that keeps a lid on new drug prices.

By law, drug companies can't set the Canadian drug price higher than in seven specific comparative countries. But one of the countries on that list is the United States, where prices are usually higher than in most developed countries.

Health Minister Jane Philpott has decided it's time to kick the U.S. off the list and start comparing Canada to 12 countries with lower drug prices, including New Zealand and Australia.

It's part of a package of proposed amendments to the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board that are now open for public comment.

1 in 7 Ontarians take prescription opioids

Despite evidence that the current opioid addiction epidemic started because people took drugs that their doctors prescribed, the rate of opioid prescriptions is continuing to rise, at least in Ontario.

A new report by Health Quality Ontario found that nine million Ontarians filled opioid prescriptions in 2015-16 — that's an increase of 450,000 prescriptions over three years.

And with almost two million people every year filling opioid prescriptions, it works out to about one in every seven Ontarians on some form of the highly addictive drug.

"We were surprised," Joshua Tepper told CBC News. He's the president of Health Quality Ontario, an agency that advises the provincial government on health issues.

The provincial drug data showed a 30 per cent increase in prescriptions filled for hydromorphone, which is five times stronger than morphine. Tepper said he can't explain the increase.

"I wonder whether we should consider how advertising to physician and patients might have shifted to hydromorphone and the influence that has," he said.

But, he said, the opioid epidemic won't be resolved by pointing fingers.

"I don't want a naming, blaming, shaming culture for either the providers or patient," Tepper said.

He knows firsthand how difficult it is to help patients suffering from pain. It's one of the most difficult conversations he has with his patients.

"Managing pain is a challenge, dependencies are a challenge. Part of my responsibility is to alleviate suffering and how do we do that without creating risk for patients and society?"