Fitter, happier

Have you ever heard that Radiohead song with the creepy computer voice telling you how to live a “fitter, happier, more productive” life? Regular exercise, not drinking too much, eating well, getting on better with your associates. Sardonic or not, it seems like we’re constantly inundated with recommendations for healthy living: eat five fruits and vegetables a day, get 150 minutes of exercise every week, don’t drink more than two glasses of wine a night.

The big question though, is, does anyone actually follow these guidelines?

Well apparently, we are. Two new studies have come out in the last week reporting that a recent leveling off in obesity rates around the country can be attributed to better eating habits, and that interventions among college freshman can actually reduce problem-drinking behaviors among students.

The first study, a survey of roughly 200,000 Americans on their grocery shopping habits and food and drink choices conducted between 2003-2011, revealed that we’ve reduced our average calorie intake by 34 calories per day in children and 14 calories in adults. Much of this improvement seems to stem from a reduction in sugary beverage consumption, which have taken a beating in public health campaigns over the last five years. Moreover, the researchers concluded that this change was not attributable to the economic recession or rising food prices. Instead, they believe that we are actually making better, more conscious decisions about what we put in our bodies; this was especially the case in households that had young children at home.

In the second study — a meta-analysis of 60 different intervention programs implemented on college campuses over the last ten years — researchers reported that students who had received some sort of alcohol education as freshmen had fewer problem-drinking behaviors and consumed less alcohol on average than those who hadn’t. While they acknowledge that no one intervention was perfect, they cite the “Prevention Paradox,” that a few small individual changes (i.e., getting students to reduce their drink intake by one on nights that they go out) can have larger overarching effects across the entire student body. One method that the researchers particularly recommended was providing individualized reports on each student’s drinking habits and how they measured up to their peers. Other general tips included alternating alcoholic beverages with water, being particularly mindful at fraternity parties, and setting goals or limits before going out.

All in all, this is encouraging news. It seems as if the barrage of public health campaigns that have papered our cities in recent years, admonishing us for our soda habits and encouraging better cooking and eating behaviors, have been effective. And apparently all those Alcohol EDU courses we had to take as freshmen were having a greater subliminal effect on us than we realized. Now, the only thing left to tackle is making us happier, more productive, comfortable…

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Playing with children, adults and Michael Gove: An interview with Patrick Bateson

I’ve got a new piece up today on King’s Review of an interview I conducted with Cambridge professor of ethology Sir Patrick Bateson. Professor Bateson has a fascinating new book on the benefits of play and playfulness, and how these traits can help us develop creativity, innovation and flexible thinking.

I discuss the book with Professor Bateson, as well as branching into the effects reforms in education are having on our brains and behaviors, and how too much school may actually be harming children today.

And finally, the question everyone’s been wondering, do those ping-pong tables in new-age offices really offer any sort of benefits? Read the article to find out!

Playing with children, adults and Michael Gove: An interview with Patrick Bateson.

Cannabis and memory loss: dude, where’s my CBD?

I’ve got a new piece in The Guardian today on memory deficits in heavy cannabis users, and how the type of weed you’re smoking can actually impact your risk for impairment. Dedicated Brain Study readers might recognize it as a revamped, beefed-up version of the infamous “Weed be better off smoking our parents’ pot” post from last year. Now, I’ve incorporated some new research into the piece on cognitive problems in heavy smokers, as well as the relevant policy news from Colorado, Washington and Uruguay regarding legalization. I also talk about how these developments could result in more than one type of harm reduction, which is an exciting prospect for improving the safety of the drug with government regulation.

Check out the full piece here, and as always, let me know what you think.

The White Stuff

Whether it goes in our mouths or up our noses, we’re drawn to the powdery chemical confectionaries that can both give us pleasure and cause us harm — The White Stuff

I’m very excited to announce a new project I’m launching today on Beacon Reader, The White Stuff, where I’ll be writing about our favorite vices: food and drugs. I’m trying to bring some sense into the ongoing debate about what we put into our bodies, and my goal is to provide unbiased research-based reporting on the latest science and policy news on addiction, nutrition and everything in between.

Beacon is a new kind of journalism platform that, instead of being financed with ads or commissions, lets you fund my work directly. In addition to my own writing, you’ll get access to exclusive content from all of the other amazing journalists on the site who write about politics, technology, global issues, sports and more.

However, I need help getting the project off the ground. In order for the project to launch, I need 25 people to subscribe in the next 14 days. If you like what you’ve read on Brain Study, please help with my new endeavor by subscribing and sharing my project page for The White Stuff (there’s even a snazzy promo video).

I’ll still be writing from time to time on Brain Study, but most of the action is going to be over on Beacon, so if you want to stay up-to-date, please subscribe!

Beating the poppy seed defense

During my PhD, one of the research projects I was involved in was a relapse prevention study testing individuals who had previously been addicted to alcohol, cocaine or heroin, but were no longer using any drugs.

One participant who took part in the study — I’ll call him Dave — was a young guy who was dependent on alcohol, but swore up and down he had never abused any drugs. Dave was three weeks into the study and doing well, staying abstinent and remaining cheerful and cooperative throughout the sessions. However, one morning when Dave came in and went through his usual drug screen, he tested positive for heroin, something he claimed (and I believed) he had never taken.

Instead, Dave maintained he had eaten a poppy seed bagel for lunch the day before, which would explain the positive test.

Opiates — like heroin, morphine or opium — are all derived from the poppy seed plant, and it’s not uncommon for poppy seeds to give a false-positive result for opiates on a drug screen. However, it’s also not uncommon for people to falsely plead the poppy seed defense, and there is no way of confirming what form of morphine (heroin or poppy seed) is actually causing the positive screen. Until now.

Researchers from King’s College London have discovered a metabolite of heroin that only exists in the synthetic form of the drug and can be reliably tested for using a urine screen. This means that instead of screening for all types of opiates, doctors and researchers can now test for only the presence of heroin in the body.

Notably, the test would also not come back positive for any prescription painkillers, which is simultaneously an advantage and a disadvantage of the new screen. For those who are legitimately prescribed the medications, there would be no more concerns over having a suspicious positive result. However, the tests would also not be able to identify the more than 12 million Americans who are using these drugs without a prescription. This is especially problematic as prescription painkillers have quickly surpassed all other types of drugs as the most common form of overdose, totaling more deaths in 2010 than cocaine and heroin combined, and prescription painkiller overdose has now become the leading cause of death by injury in the U.S.

The new test is still under investigation and isn’t perfectly refined (only 16 of the 22 known current heroin users tested positive for the metabolite in the study — meaning it has a detection rate of only about 75%), but it is a promising new avenue for researchers and medical screeners to more accurately identify the presence of heroin.

As for Dave, he successfully completed the study without any other events, and he never ate another poppy seed before a session again.

A new year brings a new drug law — and the need for a new drug test

Happy New Years, Brain Studiers!

One of the biggest stories kicking off this new year is the execution of the Colorado law legalizing marijuana. The historic ruling went into action yesterday to much fanfare, some dubbing the momentous occasion “Green Wednesday”. The day went off without a hitch, with police officers and state officials on-hand to make sure the crowds lining up to be the first to buy bud didn’t get too rowdy. However, one of the biggest controversies stemming from the law is not the purchasing of marijuana itself, but what smokers will do with it when they need to get home.

Driving under the influence is a serious concern for the new law, and Colorado and Washington have struggled with how to police driving while high. Breathalyzer tests can easily be used to detect alcohol levels in the blood, but the presence of other types of drugs are typically tested for using blood or urine screens — something made a little more difficult at roadside checkpoints. Additionally, marijuana has one of the longest half-lives of any drug, and traces of the substance can be seen for up to a month after last use. This means that a driver could test positive for cannabis without actually having smoked weed for several weeks.

Police officers in Los Angeles, where recreational marijuana use is still illegal, are attempting to tackle at least one of these problems by using saliva swabs to test drivers immediately for the presence of illicit drugs. The LAPD rolled out the initiative in time for New Years Eve, using the tests to check for cocaine, cannabis, amphetamine and methamphetamine, benzodiazepines like Xanax, and opiates like heroin, methadone or prescription painkillers at roadside checkpoints throughout the city. The saliva samples work like a blood test, testing the plasma for the active component in the drug (THC in the case of cannabis). They are less accurate than standard urine screens and have a smaller window for detection, but they are being looked at to use in a pinch in drug DUI stops, providing an empirical justification for bringing someone in for additional testing.

The development of U.S. drug laws to more sensible harm-reduction policies from the draconian war on drugs seen over the last several decades is a revolutionary shift. However, balancing public safety with personal rights will be an ongoing struggle, and, needless to say, all eyes will be on Colorado and Washington in 2014.