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.

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.

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.

The science behind the meat sweats

A  friend of mine asked that I write about an important medical condition that will likely afflict us all at one point in our lives (except perhaps vegetarians). A diagnosis involving discomfort, physiological distress, remorse, and possibly embarrassment. I am referring, of course, to the meat sweats.

Following a barbecue, particularly Korean or Argentinean in nature, or a rib-eating contest, one might find oneself feeling flushed, overcome by fatigue, and noticing a telltale dampness underneath the arms. As your body processes what it has just been forced to consume, you might begin to perspire profusely, purging liquid-protein through your pores.

While scientists posit that the meat sweats aren’t actually real, and indeed there are no academic papers dedicated to the topic, we carnivores know better.

There are a couple popular theories regarding the sweats, ranging from the high salt content in many cured meats – your body sweating more in an effort to expel the extra sodium – to the pure adrenaline experienced while eating another formerly living creature (apparently this is even greater if you hunt and kill the animal yourself).

Most likely though, the meat sweats are caused by the thermic effect of protein. While it may seem like every calorie you eat fixes itself permanently to your gut, the energy in food is conserved in several different ways. This includes fueling the process your body must go through to breakdown and digest what it is consuming. Remember the rumor that eating celery actually burns calories? This is purportedly because your body uses more energy to digest the fibrous vegetable than it contains (this is unfortunately not true, though you’re still unlikely to gain much weight on a diet of rabbit food).

As your body works to breakdown a meal, it begins to heat up, and just like any machine, the harder it works, the hotter it gets. Eating a lot of anything can cause this phenomenon, but a diet high in protein is particularly susceptible to turning you into a furnace. This is because protein has more than twice the thermic effect of fat or carbohydrates, with 15-35% of the energy consumed in a steak being required to digest it. This applies whether it’s chicken, hamburgers or tofu you’re chowing down on, though the soy sweats are a lesser-known phenomenon, probably because there aren’t many tofu-eating contests out there.

This thermic effect is one reason diets like Atkins and Paleo have taken off. However, before you dive face first into a plate of pulled pork, keep in mind that fat (the other main ingredient in bacon) has twice the energy density of protein at 9 calories per gram, but only burns off at a measly 5-10%.

So with barbecue season around the corner, try to control yourself and consume in moderation. But if this isn’t possible, prepare yourself a comfortable digestion spot on the couch, maybe with a towel underneath, and get ready to ride it out. At least you can be comforted that science is on your side.

Happy meating!

Spending more time in the dark could boost hearing in old age

Your brain can do amazing things, not least of which is change. Specifically, neurons can adapt and grow new connections to help compensate for a loss in function in other areas. This has been most dramatically shown in children who have an entire hemisphere of their brain removed, usually to treat extreme cases of epilepsy, the other side taking over so that they can still walk, talk and function normally. Another common example of this type of neural plasticity is the improvement of other senses, particularly hearing, after the loss of sight.

In my latest article for The Guardian, I review a study that reports improvements in hearing in mice that have been visually sensory deprived for a week — meaning they were locked in a darkened room. Amazingly, cells in a sensory relay-station part of the brain reorganized to strengthen their hearing after this temporary loss of sight, even in older mice, which were previously thought to be exempt from this ability. While it’s still early days, this finding opens up the possibility for less invasive ways to treat hearing loss in old age.

Check out the full piece here.

How a pregnant mother’s diet could change a child’s brain

Scientists have pursued every possible avenue to try to figure out why we keep getting fatter. They’ve explored our genes, our brains, our hormones and our gut bacteria, not to mention our fatty, sugary diets and sedentary lifestyles. Now, a recent study has come out blaming our expanding waistlines and poor health on our parents’ behaviors before we were born.

My newest article is up on The Atlantic, discussing recent research on the impact a mother’s diet has on her offspring’s health, affecting our brains and subsequently our bodies. This line of research isn’t new — other studies have shown links between a woman’s health during pregnancy and her child’s weight later in life — but this is one of the first to provide a potential explanation for this phenomenon by looking in the brain at some crucial hunger hormones.

However, you can’t blame all of your problems on your parents; what you eat still has a major impact on how these brain changes manifest:

Now, I’m all for shifting blame away from myself and onto my parents, but I feel that, like every possible explanation behind the obesity epidemic, this is only one piece of the puzzle. Genes undoubtedly play a role in body mass, fat percentage, and metabolism, but so does what you eat and how many calories you burn through physical activity…The problem of obesity, like so many health and social issues we face today, is that there isn’t just a single contributor to the problem. If there were, it would have been solved by now.

Check out the entire piece here.

The other heroin

Maybe it’s first prescribed to you for a bad back. Or maybe your friend who got wisdom tooth surgery had a couple pills left over and gave you one to help you relax. At first, you’re fine with just a pill or two, taking them occasionally on the weekend to celebrate or to help you unwind. Then it becomes a regular thing in the evening after work–-just like a glass of wine, right?

But then one isn’t quite doing it for you; you start losing that blissful initial buzz as your tolerance starts to kick in. So you up it to two. Just two, that’s not bad, right? And then someone tells you–you’re not sure who, or maybe you read it on the internet–that if you crush them up and snort them you can get that quick burst back like you used to have.

You try to cut back, going a day or two without, but you feel awful. It’s like the flu, but worse. The flu mixed with crippling depression and anxiety and insomnia. You take one so you can get some sleep, and then so you can get out of bed the next morning. And then it’s just so easy, providing you with that blissful daze that gets you through the day, staving off the morose and despair that are lurking around the corner, waiting to envelop you when it’s been too long.

But this is getting expensive. I mean, these pills are $80 a pop on the street! You’ve long since burned through your savings, but you can’t stop now, that would make you face the darkness, and nothing is worse than that. So you suck it up and make the switch, something you swore you’d never do. And now you can’t live without it, though soon you may not be able to live with it.

Last Sunday, we lost one of the greatest actors of our generation.

And while Philip Seymour Hoffman technically died of a heroin overdose – the heartbreaking, embarrassing and ghastly details on view for all to see in the same newspapers and magazines that so touchingly eulogize him in preceding and succeeding articles–it is prescription painkillers that reportedly triggered his relapse and led to his eventual demise.

This story, sadly, is not a new one. Not the tale of the movie or rock star dying in a blaze of drug-fueled glory, but the sad, lonely, accidental opiate overdose. And despite the panic over potentially laced bags of heroin leading to a rash of deaths, the majority of these overdoses are from legal prescription drugs like Oxycontin or Vicodin.

Because these drugs are technically legal, intended to be prescribed by a doctor to help you heal, there is a misconception that they are safer than street drugs. And while it’s true that they may be cleaner than heroin–unadulterated by additives ranging from the relatively mundane, like laxatives, baking powder, and lactose, to the potentially deadly fentanyl, methamphetamine, desomorphine, or Krokodil–prescription pills are not innocuous.

The effect of opiate drugs like heroin, morphine, Vicodin, and Oxycontin are identical in the brain. All of these substances are derived from the opium poppy plant, and once in the brain, our receptors don’t care if they were bought in a pharmacy or on the street. Opiates are depressants, meaning they suppress neuronal functioning by attaching themselves to opioid receptors scattered throughout the brain, preventing the neurons from firing. However, these drugs are not selective, and while they can stop us from feeling pain, they can also stop us from breathing.

Imagine if you had to concentrate on every breath you took, every inhale and exhale. While advocates of mindfulness meditation would be pleased, most of us would be unable to function. Fortunately, our brainstem takes care of this for us, automatically contracting our diaphragm and expanding our lungs. Death from overdose occurs when this system stops functioning. The cells in the brainstem become overwhelmed by the opioids that are inhibiting their functioning and telling them to stop firing. When this happens, we stop breathing. We begin to suffocate. Our lips and nails turn blue; we might start seizing or spasming. Eventually, our heart stops beating.

In 2010, 16,651 people died this way from a prescription medication. Deaths caused by prescription drug abuse now make up more overdose deaths than those from heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine combined.

From Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon, prescription drug abuse has become a raging epidemic. The governor of Vermont recently spent his entire State of the State address discussing the problem, and President Obama and the White House have raised similar concerns, trotting out staggering statistics like the fact that drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death of America, comprising more fatalities than car accidents. In Ohio, one of the states hardest hit by the epidemic, deaths from drug overdose increased by 440% since 1999, up to a staggering 1,765 people in 2011. That’s five people dying every day from an overdose.

But an addiction to painkillers is not a sustainable one, with pills costing anywhere from $60 – $100, depending on their strength. So more and more people are making the switch to heroin, a $10 drug potentially laced with dangerous additives and laden with connotations. New York has seen an 84% rise in heroin overdoses in the past two years, coinciding with a 67% increase in heroin seized, supply following demand.

All told, there are over 38,000 deaths by drug overdose every year in the U.S., more than 50% of which are from prescription drugs, 75% of those opiate-based. And these numbers are rising.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death is undoubtedly a tragedy and a great loss, but odds are, Hoffman wasn’t the only one who died last Sunday.

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…

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!