Current drugs for conditions from depression to Parkinson’s work by changing levels of chemicals in the brain—an imprecise method that can have a wide range of unintended effects. But a new study suggests it could be possible to make drugs that work by turning off genes instead, getting at, for instance, a specific receptor in a particular part of the brain.
Bath products never sounded so dangerous before. Two methamphetamine-like drugs that are being sold as mere “bath salts” have been linked to hallucinations and suicides, and lawmakers around the country are cracking down. Three states have already banned the substances, and this weekend Senator Charles Schumer announced that he’ll introduce a bill to outlaw the substances at the federal level.
“These so-called bath salts contain ingredients that are nothing more than legally sanctioned narcotics, and they are being sold cheaply to all comers, with no questions asked, at store counters around the country,” said Schumer, a New York Democrat. [Reuters]
The drugs, mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), can be snorted, injected, or smoked. They have no connection to real bath salts–the scented powders and crystals added to bath water for relaxation. The drugs are commercially labeled with such innocuous names as TranQuility, Blue Silk, and White Lightning, but authorities agree that the effects are anything but innocuous:
Psychotic reactions to snorting the “bath salts” reportedly led one woman to swing a machete at her 71-year-old mother in an attempt to behead her, Panama City Beach police said. Also, a man high on the brand Blue Silk tore up the backseat of a patrol car with his teeth after seven Bay County Sheriff’s Office deputies wrestled the crazed man into the cruiser, the agency said. [Los Angeles Times]
Alzheimer’s: It’s a disease that afflicts over five million Americans, and there is currently no treatment for it. But researchers are getting closer to a diagnostic test for the disease. Last week a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory committee recommended that the agency approve a brain scan that can detect the disease in a living patient.
The approval would be for a dye that homes in on plaque in the brain, making it visible on PET scans. Such scans would be especially valuable in a common and troubling situation — trying to make a diagnosis when it is not clear whether a patient’s memory problems are a result of Alzheimer’s disease or something else. If a scan shows no plaque, the problems are not caused by Alzheimer’s and could be from tiny strokes or other diseases. [New York Times]
Parents, of course, love to read too much into the small steps of a child’s development. But could it really be that the self-control kids learn to exert when they are very young is an indicator of the adult lives they will lead?
Right from the start, they are taught to restrain their impulses, focus on their goals, and control their choices. This seems like a wise move, but how could you tell if such instruction actually affects a child’s fate?
Ideally, you would follow a group of children into adulthood, to see how their degree of self-control affects the course of their lives. You’d need to catch up with them at regular intervals to look at their health, mental state, finances and more. You’d need to meticulously plan the study decades before the important results came in, and you’d need to keep in close touch with the volunteers so they stick with the study. In short, you’d need to have set up the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study.
That study began in the mid-1970s, and all these years later, nearly all of the thousand-plus participants (who were born in 1972 or 1973) are still involved. The huge data set Terrie Moffit and Avshalom Caspi have obtained shows that those who scored highest on self-control tests in the first years of their lives were healthier and wealthier than their peers into their 30s.
For all the details, check out the rest of Ed’s post at Not Exactly Rocket Science.
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Bilingual Infants Have Better Mental Control
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Newborn Babies Have a Preference for the Way Living Things Move
DISCOVER: Could an Inner Zombie Be Controlling Your Brain?
Since its emergence in the early 1980s, the drug isotretinoin—used to treat severe acne and sold under a host of different brand names—has been subject to controversy over whether it increases the incidence of suicide attempts in those who take it. But sorting out whether the drug, the acne itself, or some other factor is driving increased suicide risk is quite difficult.
So for a study out in the British Medical Journal, a team of researchers in Sweden looked at a deluge of data for 5,756 people who took the drug. Their conclusion: Severe acne patients who took isotretinoin had an increased risk for suicide attempts both before and after taking it, so they can’t definitively link isotretinoin to suicide.
The drug, perhaps best known as the pharmaceutical company Roche’s Accutane, has been embraced by dermatologists and their suffering patients, but has also been dogged by controversy for its side effects.
While powerful at clearing acne, the drug has been linked to birth defects if taken during pregnancy and has also been suspected of causing mental side effects, although Roche has vigorously defended personal injury claims in this area. [Reuters]
Anders Sundstrom led the current research, which seems to support the theory that the pharmaceutical isn’t a threat to mental health. Said Sundstrom:
According to a new study out in Science Translational Medicine, treating depressed mice with gene therapy in the brain to bolster a protein connected to the neurotransmitter serotonin can make those depressive symptoms dissipate.
Here’s the gist: The gene in question creates a protein called p11 that help carry serotonin receptors up to the surface of a brain cell where they can receive signals from other brain cells. Poor serotonin signaling may be one of the major drivers behind depression, and a dearth of p11 could worsen the problem, according to study author Michael Kaplitt.
“In the absence of p11, a neuron can produce all the serotonin receptors it needs, but they will not be transported to the cell surface,” said Kaplitt. [AFP]
The size of a small part of the brain, right behind the eyes, is connected with a person’s ability to gauge how likely they are to be right about factual questions, according to a study published in Science last week. This faculty is important in many real-world decisions; it can make the difference between relying on our mistaken judgment and asking for help if we realize we might be wrong.
The study’s lead author uses the game show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? as an prime example of this kind of “metacognition,” or thinking about our own thinking:
“You might have the opportunity to ask the audience or phone a friend,” says Steve Fleming, a neuroscientist at University College London. But, he adds, “You need to know how sure you are about your own answer before you opt to use those lifelines.” [NPR]
Recreational drug users call it “Special K.” Large, frequent doses of the anesthetic ketamine can give users vivid hallucinations, but a recently published study hints that the drug may have a medicinal use: temporarily treating depression brought on by bipolar disorder.
The small, proof-of-concept study appears in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry. National Institutes of Health researchers randomly gave 18 depressed patients ketamine or a placebo on two different days, two weeks apart. They used a much smaller dose of the drug than the amount used for recreation or anesthesia, but within 40 minutes 71 percent of the patients who received ketamine showed a significant improvement in mood, which lasted for three days, as measured using a psychiatric depression rating scale.
The quick response time is unusual for the drugs typically used to treat bipolar disorder’s depression, such as lithium or antidepressants like Prozac, and many of the study’s patients had failed to respond to other treatments. On average, the study participants had tried seven antidepressants and 55 percent of participants had failed to respond positively to the extreme measures of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)–seizures brought on by electrical current. Ketamine’s apparent success may have to do with the neurotransmitter, glutamate:
Finally, a big head comes in handy.
For a study out this week in Neurology, scientists looked at 270 Alzheimer’s patients from the Multi-Institutional Research in Alzheimer’s Genetic Epidemiology study (MIRAGE) and found that a larger head size was correlated with better-preserved cognitive and memory skills. The team, led by Robert Perneczky, argues that a bigger cranial circumference could mean a person has more “brain reserve,” offering some protection against the deterioration brought on by Alzheimer’s.
Finding this out took a lot more than just scanning the patients for cerebral atrophy and then wrapping a tape measure around their heads to gauge circumference:
They took blood to see which variant of the APOE gene was in their DNA (having one or two copies of the e4 version of APOE is thought to increase one’s risk of Alzheimer’s). They looked up the results of each patient’s most recent mini-mental state examination (MMSE) to measure cognitive function. They also took into account each patient’s age and ethnicity, how long they’d had Alzheimer’s and whether they had diabetes, hypertension or major depression [Los Angeles Times].