Am I a narcissist, or just kind of a bitch?

I have a new piece up on Thought Catalog, a navel-gazing exploration into narcissism and the concern that “kids these days” are self-centered, entitled assholes, raised on a plethora of gold stars and participation trophies.

I dig into the research arguing both sides, as well as subjecting my friends and family — in a completely biased sample — to a pop psychology quiz on narcissism. (Spoiler alert: the younger generation comes out on top.)

Ultimately though, I believe that all is not lost, and really this self-aggrandizing trend is more a reflection of our age than our generation. And maybe it’s not such a bad thing. After all, why would we try to change the world for the better if we didn’t actually think we could do it?

Check out the full piece, complete with a link to the narcissism quiz, here, and let me know how you measure up.

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.

Seeing left, smelling right

We’ve all heard about the “left-brain/right-brain” hype, which, to be honest, is really just a bunch of malarkey. Supposedly, a bigger right hemisphere means you’ll be a great artist, and a larger left indicates a penchant for science. If the dancer spins clockwise, you’re right-brained, while if you’re left-brained she twirls counter-clockwise.

Fortunately, all of these neural conspiracy theories have been largely debunked. However, the fact does remain that we do have two hemispheres that are connected but divided – a cortical “separate but equal,” if you will. And oftentimes, one of these hemispheres is larger than the other, the smaller being situated slightly behind. Now, again, this is not to say that the bigger hemisphere is better, simply that they are asymmetric, and presumably this asymmetry has evolved for a reason.

Researchers from University College London have investigated the purpose of this neural asymmetry on a much smaller scale using the zebrafish, a common animal model used for investigating basic but deceptively complex brain-related phenomena thanks to their simplified central nervous system. Published in the journal Current Biology, the researchers discovered that neuronal asymmetry lends itself towards enhanced processing of sensory information in the zebrafish, and that a symmetrical brain can result in an impairment of the processing of visual or olfactory stimuli.

The researchers focused on the habenula – an area located near the thalamaus that is a type of way station in the brain, processing sensory information. The habenula receives inputs from around the brain and helps to designate the appropriate neurochemical output for neurons further down the line. However, cells in the left and right habenula react differently to different types of stimuli, resulting in separate projections to other areas of the brain.

In the current study, cells in the right habenula were largely responsible for receiving odor information, while the left-sided neurons processed visual information. Very few neurons responded to both types of stimuli. These left and right neurons also had distinct outputs, the left heading to the dorsal, or top, interpeduncular nuclei (IPN), while the right had outputs to the ventral, or bottom, IPN. These ventral and dorsal IPN neurons subsequently had their own distinct outputs as well, meaning the entire operation of processing visual and olfactory information was distinct, divided between the two hemispheres.

The real test of any scientific phenomenon though, is what happens when you disrupt this process (scientists really just like to mess things up to see what will happen). Will the other hemisphere take over, or will that function be entirely lost?

To find out, the researchers “shocked” the fish with cold – meaning when the fish were still embryos, they exposed them to extreme cold with the hopes of disrupting their typical gene expression and thus their cell development. In fact, using cold shock was so successful, it resulted in a complete reversal of many of the fishes’ neurons, meaning that what was right was now left, and left was right. Not only did this lead to a switch in the processing of sensory information, but the entire assembly line from the habenula neurons on down was reversed, a mirrored reflection of the fishes’ normal cell functions. Light information was now processed on the right side, however, the projections to the IPN remained the same. So light processed on the right side projected to the dorsal IPN, whereas previously the dorsal IPN had been activated by the left habenula light response.

The final step was to find out what happens when asymmetry is completely lost, to ascertain whether there was a functional benefit to this lateralization (again, scientists really just like to mess with a perfectly good brain process). To do this, the researchers manipulated the fishes’ neurons so that the habenula cells were either all right or all left. That isn’t to say that all the neurons were located on either the left or the right side, but rather the cells acted like they were all “right” neurons or “left” neurons, receiving inputs and creating outputs from and to their respective sources.

This complete lateralization resulted in a loss of the opposite side’s function, meaning the “double-left” fish had exceptional vision but were unable to process odors, while the “double-right” fish were blind to the light but had a super-power sense of smell.

Finally, even fish that were raised in complete darkness still showed this laterality when it came to processing visual information, meaning that the brain’s left-right organization was dependent on gene expression, not the cells’ experience or exposure to light.

From this, the researchers concluded that it doesn’t actually matter which side the cells are on, so long as each type of cell and its connections are in place. But a loss of those neurons, even if others are in their place, leads to complete functional disruption. And really, this makes sense; it is not the location of the cell but its connections that truly matter, dictating its function.

Yet another instance of science proving cool stuff that, if we really thought about it, we already kind of figured to be true.

Also posted on Mind Read.

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…

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.