Hallucinogens, starvation, and magnets: A new cure for depression?

What do hallucinogens, starvation and magnets all have in common? No, they’re not the key ingredients for a wild and crazy weekend; they are all potential alternative treatments for depression that are being explored by researchers and clinicians alike.

Scientists have long known that the serotonin theory of depression is imperfect, yet few treatment options are available beyond the standard course of cognitive-behavioral therapy and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). In my new piece for Pacific Standard, I explore recent research that has emerged looking at some potential alternatives for depression that are rather… unconventional.

This includes giving people psilocybin, the active ingredient in so-called “magic” mushrooms, which also boosts serotonin levels and crucially taps into the amygdala, the brain’s major emotional center. Another possible avenue involves boosting ghrelin levels in the brain, a hunger hormone that may also play a role in protecting neurons from the destructive effects of stress, particularly in the hippocampus. Alternatively, using high-powered magnets, researchers and clinicians are able to activate certain key parts of the brain that can potentially lead to a suppression of other over-active emotional regions, turning down our feelings of anxiety or depression.

While none of these options is perfect, they do provide an encouraging new perspective, thinking outside the box to treat this condition that will afflict at least one in ten of us at some point in our lives.

You can check out the full story in Pacific Standard here.

Starting up

We’ve all had (or think we’ve had) that million dollar idea. But how do you turn that idea into a reality?

In my new piece for Science Careers, I interview two budding entrepreneurs who are taking their ideas out of the lab and into industry. While the odds aren’t necessarily in their favor (75% of all startups fail), they both say that the learning experience and satisfaction of seeing their ideas come to fruition are worth the struggle.

Read about their process here, starting from the initial idea, to securing intellectual property protection, and the all-important fight to find funding.

Instant gratification as a way out of addiction?

Impulsivity is often seen as a hallmark of addiction — acting without thinking about the consequences of your actions and valuing the immediate reward of a drug-induced high over the future long-term payout of a healthy lifestyle. This type of delay discounting has been linked to a greater risk for drug addiction, but new research suggests that this type of “myopia for the future” may also improve someone’s chances of staying sober when they’re trying to get clean.

My latest piece for The Fix investigates the research behind this paradox, which suggests that those who are the most impulsive have the most to gain from effective treatment, cognitive training successfully improving their self-control. But is this effect a result of the treatment program itself or just a regression to the mean? Check out the article here to find out.

Resisting temptation in the brain

Having spent the last three years studying how difficult it is to say no to our vices, and being intimately acquainted with all that can go wrong in fMRI research, I’m always a bit skeptical of studies that claim to be able to predict our capacity for self-control based on a brain scan. But a new paper out this week in Psychological Science seems to have done a pretty admirable job, tying our real-life ability to resist temptation with activity in two specific areas of the brain.

Researchers from Dartmouth University first tested 31 women on two different tasks: an assessment of self-control and a measurement of temptation. Using an fMRI scanner, they compared where the women’s brains lit up when they were stopping themselves from performing a certain action (pressing a button, to be exact), and when they were seeing images of ice cream, hamburgers, and other tasty treats. As expected, better performance on the response inhibition task was linked to activation in a part of the brain called the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), a region in the frontal cortex known to be involved in inhibiting a response. Conversely, looking at pictures of chocolate and chicken sandwiches activated the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) a deeply rooted part of the brain that’s essential in feelings of reward.

So far, this is all pretty par for the course; you exert self-control, you activate your control center. Looking at something enticing? Your reward region is going to light up. Nothing new or ground-breaking (or even that useful, to be honest). But the researchers didn’t stop there. Instead, they took the study out of the lab to see what happened when the participants were faced with real-life temptations. Equipping them with Blackberry smartphones, the participants were prompted throughout the week with questions about how badly they desired junk food, how much they resisted these cravings, whether they gave in to their urges, and how much they ate if they did cave to temptation.

Comparing these responses to brain activity in the two target areas, the researchers discovered that the women who had the most activity in the NAcc while viewing images of food were also the ones who had the most intense cravings for these treats in real life. Additionally, these women were more likely to give in to their temptations when they had a hankering for some chocolate. On the other hand, those who had greater activity in the IFG during the inhibition task were also more successful at withstanding their desires — in fact, they were over 8 times more likely to resist the urge to indulge than those with less activity in the region. And if they did give in, they didn’t eat as much as those with a smaller IFG response.

Having confirmed the link between activity in these areas and real-life behaviors, the next step is to figure out how to ramp up or tamp down activity in the IFG and NAcc, respectively. One technique that psychologists are exploring is transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. This involves zapping a certain part of the brain with an electromagnetic current, trying to either stimulate or depress activity in that region. So far, use of TMS in studies of addiction and eating disorders — attempting to enhance self-control and decrease feelings of craving — has been met with limited success. Pinpointing the exact right area through the skull and figuring out the correct frequency to use can be difficult, and in fact, a few studies have actually accidentally increased desire for the substance! Additionally, the effects are often temporary, wearing off a few days after the stimulation is over. Other studies have looked at cognitive training to try to enhance self-control abilities, particularly in children with ADHD, although these attempts have also varied in their success.

Beyond targeting certain psychiatric disorders or trying to get us to say no to that second (or third or fourth) cookie for reasons of vanity, there’s a push to enhance self-control from a public health standpoint. The authors of the current study cite the staggering statistic that 40% of deaths in the U.S. are caused by failures in self-control. That’s right, according to research, 40% of all fatalities are caused by us not being able to say no and partaking in some sort of unhealthy behavior, the biggest culprits being smoking and over-eating or inactivity leading to obesity. Clearly then, improving self-control is not only needed to help individuals on the outer edges of the spectrum resist temptation, it would benefit those of us smack dab in the middle as well.

Happy Friday!

Blind sight: The next generation of sensory substitution technology

Conventional wisdom says that you see with your eyes. But new technology is changing the way we think about sensation and perception, showing that instead of relying on these orbs for vision, we instead really see using the activity in our brains.

My newest piece for Discover Magazine explores three amazing devices that are restoring sight to the blind, circumventing the malfunctioning sensory organs and tapping into the healthy neuro-circuitry underneath. High-tech computers in Google Glass-like devices are converting visual information into auditory and tactile stimuli, allowing the blind to see, drive, navigate, and mountain climb using their ears, fingertips, and even their tongues, the brain translating this information back to the visual cortex.

Check out the full piece here, including a video of one of the devices in action.

This is what Candy Crush does to your brain

What level of Candy Crush are you stuck on? 42? 73? 130? 305? I myself can’t get passed level 140. Yet despite the frustratingly frequent losses and time-outs, I can’t seem to put the game down. So just what is it about this mind-numbingly simple app that has us all so enthralled?

My latest piece in The Guardian explores the addictive nature of Candy Crush — its similarities to slot machines, how it taps into our dopamine learning and reward circuitry, the illusion that we are in control of the game, and how the finite number of lives actually makes it extra enticing when we are let back into Candyland.

While the game isn’t actually harming you (presuming you’re not throwing away money on it), it is a time-sink, so instead of playing another round, check out my article instead!

Humans can smell 1 trillion scents

Smell always seems to get the short shrift of the sensory world. We don’t rely on it to navigate and communicate like we do sight and sound; it doesn’t send shivers up our spine like a soft caress; and no one’s ever claimed a whiff of roses to be “orgasmic” like they might a bite of chocolate peanut butter cheesecake.

But smell will be relegated to the sensory corner no longer! New research published in Science reveals that our olfactory abilities are far stronger than anyone had previously imagined, enabling us to detect more than 1 trillion different scents — 10 million times more than was originally thought.

I’ve got a full review of the article published on The Atlantic, including how the researchers arrived at this staggering number. So check it out, and don’t forget to stop and smell the roses; there may be more in there than you thought.