Carry That Weight

January 9, 2010 at 6:09 PM | Posted in diet | Leave a comment
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Not long ago, I came across a study by researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco that showed that mice lacking MGAT2, an enzyme involved in fat absorption produced in the intestines, can eat a high fat diet without putting on weight while  otherwise similar mice that have the enzyme pack on the pounds (ounces?).  I immediately searched PubMed for effective, readily available inhibitors of this enzyme.  After all, to effectively squelch MGAT2 activity, the inhibitor need only traverse the stomach; no need to worry about it crossing the blood-brain barrier or being rapidly broken down by hepatic enzymes.  I quickly discovered that MGAT2 is readily inhibited by two well known fatty acids: sphingosine and oleic acid.  For a number of reasons, sphingosine is not really an ideal solution (it’s mitogenic for one), on the other hand, oleic acid is found in quite a few commonly used food products, including olive oilAcai berries are another rich source of oleic acid.  Of course, I knew that acai berries are one of the most hyped weight loss supplements of recent years.  What I didn’t know until recently was that another well publicized weight loss plan, first presented in The Shangri La Diet, basically boils down to downing a couple of well-timed tablespoons of extra light olive oil every day.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go

January 7, 2010 at 7:45 PM | Posted in Mental health | Leave a comment
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One might think that lab rats lead relatively cushy lives compared to their wild brethren (and no I’m not comparing graduate students to fraternity brothers).  They’re well fed, provided with warm homes, kept in reasonably germ-free environments, and need not worry that a hungry owl or hawk will swoop down upon them at any given moment.  On the other hand, tomorrow morning a graduate student might implant electrodes in their brains, expose them to carcinogens or inject them with high doses of experimental drugs, in an attempt to determine the dosages that will kill half of them.  Perhaps, if they’re lucky, they’ll merely be guillotined and dissected.  Maybe they’ll be allowed to live in peace for a few more weeks.

I’m not saying that being a lab rat is a bad thing.  In fact, lab rats have made undeniable contributions to a wide variety of critical advances in biomedical science.  Ignoble creatures, leading noble lives.  Perhaps it’s penance for the unfortunate role they played in spreading the Black Plague.  Who knows?  Me.  I’d rather be wild.

In experiments designed to determine the effect of ambiguity on behavior, rats have been trained to expect food when a high tone sounds and a mild shock or a lesser reward, such as water, when a low tone sounds.  Over time, the high tone is lowered and the low tone is raised, to the point that the meaning of the tones becomes extremely ambiguous, and in response, the rats become anxious, disinterested, and mildly depressed.  In Evolution For Everyone, David Sloan Wilson recalls one such experiment that he attempted to replicate as a high school student:

“Somewhere I read about an experiment where rats were trained to expect food at the sound of a high tone and water at the sound of a low tone.  Gradually, the high lone was lowered and the low tone raised until their meaning became ambiguous, which supposedly made the rats go crazy.”

Dr. Wilson leaves it to his readers imagination as to whether he actually completed the experiment.  More ambiguity.

It’s obvious, at least to me, that daily encounters with ambiguity are a  common contributor to the chronic stress that now plagues much of humanity.   In Why Zebras Don’t Get UlcersRobert Sopalsky lays out a comprehensive case for chronic stress being a root cause of the diseases of civilization with wit and clarity. In this book, Dr. Sopalsky describes an experiment that aptly demonstrates that a change in circumstances isn’t necessary to give rise to a great deal of ambiguity.  Instead, rather than changing circumstances creating an ambiguity that makes future events less predictable, a static set of circumstances create an insoluble dilemma for the rats.  In the specific experiment described in the book the rats are presented with a situation in which a requirement for survival, food, can only be attained by ignoring an engrained survival instinct, the avoidance of bright light.  Rats are placed in a cage where food is found only at the center of the cage under a bright light and the perimeter of the cage is dark.  The rats instinctively settle down in the dark perimeter, but to satiate their hunger they must move into the brightly lit center of the cage.  They just can’t.  Their rat instincts tell them that entering the light is the equivalent of rat suicide, and rats just don’t do that.  It’s very much a no win situation, and the rats soon become frantic.  Rats maintained in this situation long enough eventually give up, lying listlessly in dark.  Martin Seligman has coined the term “learned helplessness” to describe this type of behavior, and it is probably one of the key causes of depression in human beings.

Depression is extremely rare among nomadic foragers, although it is much less rare, even common, among ex-foragers who have taken up more sedentary modern lifestyles.  Thus, Dr. Sopalsky includes it among the illnesses he describes as diseases of civilization.

The take home message:  Clarity people.  Under certain circumstances, passive-aggressive behavior is a very effective means of punishing a friend or family member precisely because clarity, in what is probably already a tense situation, is completely lacking; for those being punished, the ambiguity, and thus the stress, is inescapable and often intolerable.  The mind games played by the passive-aggressive are extremely stressful, and stress kills.

The Man In The Mirror

January 4, 2010 at 10:27 AM | Posted in Neurology | Leave a comment
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VS Ramachandran of the University of California at San Diego has presented an intriguing talk on mirror neurons for TED.  A mirror neuron fires when you act or are acted upon, or when you observe someone else either performing an action or being acted upon.  Of course, when the mirror neuron fires in response to someone else’s actions, you don’t actually feel what they feel.  That’s because sensory and motor neurons actually suppress the input of the mirror neuron to the brain.  However, as Dr. Ramachandran notes, if you observe someone having his or her arm poked or pricked while your corresponding arm is anesthetized, you will actually feel pain.  Moreover, pain in the phantom limb of an amputee can be assuaged when the amputee watches another person’s corresponding limb being massaged.  Amazing!

Some researchers have hypothesized that defective mirror neuron function may be an underlying cause of autism.  And obviously, they are likely to play a fundamental role in the ability to feel empathy for others.

Too Hot

January 4, 2010 at 10:06 AM | Posted in Climate Change | Leave a comment

In the fall of ’73, I was an undergraduate student majoring in Chemistry at UCLA. Interestingly, the very first lecture I attended at UCLA, which was given by Nobel Prize winner Willard F. Libby of carbon-dating fame, focused on two emerging issues pertinent to Chemists at the time: ozone depletion, caused by chlorofluorcarbons such as Freon, and Global Warming, caused by the release of vast quantities of carbon dioxide during the burning of fossil fuels (surprising huh? so much for most scientists predicting global cooling in the 1970s). For about half the lecture, Dr. Libby discussed the properties of carbon dioxide that allow it to trap heat in a manner akin to glass trapping heat in a greenhouse, or in your car when you leave it parked in direct sunlight for that matter.

People should take off their ideological blinders and educate themselves. Carbon dioxide traps heat. Human beings have released and are releasing vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Surface temperatures are increasing; according to NASA/NOAA, 2005 was the warmest of the last 130 years; and with the exception of 1998, every year during this decade has been warmer than any previous year for which accurate global temperature measurements are available (1880 through 2000). During the 20th century average sea level increased at a rate of 1.7 mm/year. Over the last 20 years, the rate of increase has been about 3.4 mm/year. Stratospheric temperatures are decreasing, as would be expected if warming at the surface were due to trapped heat, rather than increasing, as would be expected if solar or cosmic radiation were the cause. The last time that carbon dioxide levels were as high as they are now the arctic was ice-free and sea level was several meters higher.

In any case, although groupthink can occur amongst scientists, and climatology is obviously a very complex subject, the basic underpinnings supporting the AGW hypothesis are very solid and relatively easy to understand if one is actually interested in understanding and is willing to put in some time researching the subject in an earnest manner.

Living In The Material World

January 2, 2010 at 9:32 PM | Posted in Cultural Evolution | Leave a comment
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Is greed good?  It depends upon who one asks I suppose, but if you a happen to live among a band of foragers, as almost all humans did only a few millennia ago, being greedy, or more accurately hoarding, would likely get you killed.  At the very least, you’d be shunned or perhaps banished.

So what happened?

A few things to consider before we launch into pure speculation.  First, human beings appear to be wired for cooperation.  Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, has shown that preverbal children have a natural tendency to cooperate and help others.  On the other hand, chimpanzees of a similar age typically act to maximize their own personal gain.  Second, human beings often cooperate with strangers even when they receive no direct benefit and are unlikely to encounter the stranger again.  Neither kin selection nor reciprocity can explain this type of behavior.  Even group selection and game theory models have a difficult time accounting for this type of behavior since both require competition between groups for altruistic behavior to emerge.  Third, human beings, at least males, typically harbor both the desire to dominate others and possibly an even greater craving for personal autonomy.

In Hierarchy In The Forest, Christopher Boehm argues that egalitarian human societies are actually maintained through a special type of hierarchy in which lower ranking males avoid subjugation by forming coalitions that forcefully preempt aggressive alpha-males from dominating the group, through whatever means is necessary, including banishing or killing overly aggressive males.  Boehm refers to this inverted type of dominance as anti-hierarchical egalitarianism.

Boehm starts from the premise that humans are innately disposed to form social dominance hierarchies similar to those of the African great apes, but that primeval foragers were largely able to neutralize these tendencies — as do present-day foraging bands.  Boehm believes, and has collected a substantial amount of data supporting his view, that people in egalitarian societies are driven by a passionate desire for personal autonomy.    Through the formation of coalitions, foraging bands can preemptively curb the tendencies of individuals who signs of wanting to dominate the band.  Potential subordinates respond to the fear that aggressive males may attempt to dominate the group through the formation of very broad political coalitions that implement a collective dominance.

A number of factors are important in maintaining this type of egalitarian social organization.   However, although a foraging lifestyle, nomadism, and the absence of food storage are all important in this regard, none by itself guarantees an egalitarian group orientation, nor does a lack of any one of these characteristics necessarily lead to the establishment of a hierarchical society.  For instance, although keeping domestic animals allows a means by which food can be stored, some pastoral nomads who maintain domesticated animals are egalitarian while others are hierarchical.  Even some sedentary communities that establish a means by which to store food will not necessarily abandon an egalitarian way of life.

However, it is clear that once a society’s  population grows beyond a certain threshold, it becomes extremely difficult, to say the least, to establish coalitions large enough to prevent the subordination of most members of a social group.  Based on anthropological and sociological studies, it seems likely that the population threshold at which an anti-hierarchical egalitarian orientation becomes unsustainable is approximately 150.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that counterbalances cannot emerge in more or less despotic societies.  For instance, the power of European monarchies was greatly diminished, and ultimately ended, by collaborative efforts involving a variety of differing political interests that included merchants and landowners, intellectual elites, and powerful religious establishments.  More recently, powerful corporate interests have been challenged, somewhat less successfully, by unions and environmentalists.  The greatest weakness in these collaborative efforts is the fact that the various interests involved don’t necessarily have the same political aims: they aren’t true coalitions.  Moreover, although the dominant members of modern societies are quasi-plutocrats, in toto they form a somewhat fluid, relatively broad ruling class that makes the dubious promise that anyone who works hard enough can join in.  In addition, Boehm has argued that the ability of the plutocrats to rule with an iron fist has been subverted in many countries by the establishment of representative democracies.  Based on the fact that the distribution of wealth in Western representative democracies hardly differs from the distributions found in authoritarian societies suggests that Boehm is overly optimistic.  In modern societies, cultural mythos and ethos seem to have been established by corporate owned media, and to a lesser degree, by conservative religious organizations.  These establishment voices mock any attempt to create more equal societies based on egalitarian principles as being driven by nothing more than class envy.  for the most part, they have been very successful in establishing this empty conjecture as unassailable truth.  The American Dream is not egalitarian equality; the American Dream is to stiff to become part of the establishment, to surpass one’s neighbor, at least as measured by material gain.  In this sense, envy has indeed become the norm.  Several studies have shown that Americans seem to measure their own happiness based on how well off they are relative to their neighbors and friends, regardless of how they measure up based on non-materialistic measures of worthiness.  In modern societies, idealistic virtues have taken a back seat to material interests; celebrity is celebrated for its own sake, social relations are depersonalized, and human awareness is riddled with disenchantment.

Are we better off?  Our ability to provide an over-abundance of food to a large majority of the human population and to protect ourselves from many deadly diseases argues yes (with the caveats that there are probably more starving people in the world today than there were two thousand years ago; and that many of the diseases we have overcome only became problematic when human beings began maintaining domesticated animals in sedentary communities).  On the other hand, modern societies are plagued by a wide variety of addictions and mental health disorders.  These disabilities are rare or non-existent in foraging nomadic bands.

I suppose the answer depends on how we measure happiness.

Life During Wartime

January 2, 2010 at 2:56 PM | Posted in Mental health | Leave a comment

Humans aren’t the only species that murders its own.  Lions have more to fear from other lions than from other types of animals, with the possible exception of human beings.  Once a male lion has established itself as the new alpha-male in a pride, either by killing or by driving out the previous alpha male, it routinely kills all the pride’s cubs.  Male wolves behave similarly.  And male bears will kill cubs that are not their own so that a female bear will become sexually receptive once again.  Lions also kill other lions in territorial disputes.  Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, kill each other at a startling rate, and live in social groups in which extremely aggressive displays, often leading to open conflict, are a daily occurrence.

Although we are less violent and murderous than chimps, human beings have unfortunately established a violent means of death that is unknown among other animals.  Human beings self-destruct.  And I’m not referring to the fact that many of us stay in bad relationships or do jobs that we hate.  No, here I’m referring to the lamentable reality that every year a large number of human beings kill themselves.  In fact, the person most likely to purposefully end your life is you.  The World Health Organization now estimates that  approximately one million people commit suicide each year; that’s more deaths than are caused by war and homicide combined.  Moreover, this plague is becoming worse rather than getting better.   In fact, the global increase in the rate of suicide over the past 60 years has been stunning.  Moreover, the true number of suicides each year is likely much higher than has been reported:  Suicide is a particularly shameful death in much of the world, and other causes of death are sometime listed on death certificates to spare the victims family unnecessary shame.  In some societies, suicides are not even recorded, making it impossible to accurately determine the true global rate of suicide.  Even so, in many countries, suicide is now ranked among the top ten causes of death.

Understanding the root causes of suicide has been the focus of a significant amount of exhaustive research.   It may be that the primary causes of suicide differ from place to place.  However, it is clear that lost status, precipitated by things such as unemployment or demotion, broken relationships, poor school performance and lost friendships,  often plays a prominent role.

We are the only animal species of which individuals intentionally take their own lives.  On rare occasions,  cetaceans will beach themselves, however, this behavior is generally believed to be caused by a response to various infectious diseases.  Certainly, nothing similar to suicide is observed among other primates.  Chimpanzees don’t hang themselves, throw themselves into rock outcroppings headfirst from high tree branches, nor doe they sacrifice themselves to dangerous predators, or otherwise destroy themselves.  Suicide is essentially a human behavior.  And it has now reached epidemic proportions.

What this means is uncertain.  However, our current lifestyle is unprecedented.  Our diets, the excessive time we spend indoors, our lack of physical activity, our artificial hierarchies:  all of these things probably contribute to the chronic stress many humans, perhaps most, experience on a near daily basis, and chronic stress is one of the primary causes of many human diseases, including several mental health disorders, such as chronic major depression.   Our bodies, and therefore our minds, did not evolve to thrive in modern societies whose only constants appear to be rapid and continual change.  We congratulate ourselves on having, in large part, overcome the elements, on having become civilized.  Perhaps we should not.  Something about the way we live has given rise to an all too prevalent feeling that life has become an unbearable burden, full of despair and lacking meaning.

What can be done?

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