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December 29, 2005

A Love Spray for the Fearful

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Posted by Zack Lynch

The analysis of love has moved from the embrace of poets into the arms of science. A recent series of precise studies reveal some of the key brain areas and molecules, like oxytocin, involved in the ability to love and bond with others, according to December's Brain Briefings. This research creates a better understanding of how the brain controls love and bonding, which is critical for species survival. In addition, the work may help researchers find ways to treat autism, anxiety and phobias.

romjul.jpgScientists have long been intrigued by the hormone oxytocin, which plays a role in complex social behavior. The hormone is part of a system in the brain that controls the formation of emotional bonds, and plays a role during sex, childbirth and breastfeeding. Now, scientists at the National Institutes for Health and Justus-Liebig University in Germany have discovered that oxytocin, which some have dubbed the hormone of love, can make volunteers less fearful.

In a paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers found that volunteers who had oxytocin sprayed into their noses had less fear response when shown frightening images than those given a placebo. Volunteers’ fear reactions were measured through a very sensitive brain-imaging technique that revealed less activity in the part of the brain known as the amygdala. Diminished activity in the amygdala has long been linked to increased sociability and decreased fear, wrote the researchers, whose work was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. The scientists said the research suggested the possibility of using the hormone to treat serious mental disorders characterized by increased anxiety and fear.

I wonder what higher doses of oxytocin might produce? I'll ask some researchers I know who are working on this and report back.

Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Emoticeuticals

November 28, 2005

Emotional Neurotechnology - Who Needs Emotions?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

My book review of Who Needs Emotions? The Brain Meets the Robot is published this month in the Lancet Neurology. While copyrights hold me back from publishing the review here, I will say that the 499 page book is an important contribution to the field of emotional neurotechnology. It contains a stimulating collection of chapters from some of the most prominent neuroscientists and artificial intelligence experts around.

622235.gifOne of my favorite chapters was written by Ann E Kelley and focused on understanding how the brain processes emotions, how emotions evolved and the neurobiological substrates of emotions. I write, "Within the space of a few dozen pages, Kelley traverses evolutionary time and looks at the neurochemical networks encoding emotion and motivation. The role of dopamine in reward and plasticity, serotonin in aggression and depression and opioid peptides in pain and pleasure are discussed as critical neuromodulators that have given rise to an extraordinary amount of behavioral flexibility."

"So what about the robots? Researchers in artificial intelligence are interested in leveraging emotions to build systems that can perform unanticipated tasks in unpredictable environments. Despite the progress being made in these systems, most AI researchers concede that improved outcomes (of their models) will need better models of how human beings respond (in their emotional state) to new situations."

At the end of the day, I highly recommend the book for searchers and graduate students across neuroscience and computer science.

Comments (3) + TrackBacks (1) | Category: Emoticeuticals

November 23, 2005

Turkey's Imagined Tryptophan Effect

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Posted by Zack Lynch

As most Americans prepare to gorge ourselves tomorrow, I'd like to set the record straight about the sedative effect of the amino acid tryptophan found in turkey: IT'S A MYTH.

100px-Tryptophan.pngTryptophan is the key ingredient in making serotonin; without it, serotonin won't be produced. Because the body can't make it's own tryptophan, it must be taken in as part of the diet; for this reason tryptophan is known as an "essential" amino acid. Typtophan achieves its effects by way of serotonin which promotes feelings of calm, relaxation, and sleepiness. Lack of serotonin, on the other hand, is associated with depression. Many of today's antidepressant drugs work to increase the level of available serotonin in the brain.

However, eating turkey with lots of other foods on a day like Thanksgiving will actually lower your tryptophan. That's because tryptophan uses the same means of transport into the brain as other amino acids, and has to compete against them to cross the blood-brain barrier. As it happens, tryptophan is the least abundant amino acid in protein. Forced to fight for access against the more common amino acids, tryptophan is left waiting at the gate: the amount of tryptophan entering the brain actually decreases.

Why, then, the post-turkey torpor? It's more likely due to the combination of drinking alcohol and overeating - not just turkey, but also mashed potatoes, ham, creamed onions, cranberries, sweet potatoes, peas, stuffing (or dressing, if you prefer), carrots, bread, pies, and whipped cream - all of which have the effect of puling the blood away from your brain to help your digestive tract do its work, and the sugar/insulin effect. Put simply, you've stuffed yourself.

Gobble, gobble.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (4) | Category: Emoticeuticals

November 15, 2005

Isolating Excessive Friendliness For the Good of Humankind

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Excessive friendliness is one of the indications that people with Williams-Beuren Syndrome (WS) exhibit. Also known as 'elvin face syndrome' because of the general common appearance of upturned noses, wide mouths and small chins, WS is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects 1 in 7500 people.

williams_person_medgen_genetics_utah_edu.jpgWS was first identified the early 1960s in a set of papers that described children with a unique set of facial, cognitive, heart defects and excessive social behavior. Since the discovery in the early 1990s that the syndrome is caused by the deletion of a tiny section of 28 genes on one copy of chromosome 7, researchers have been using imaging, cognitive tests, and genetic analysis to identify the different roles that the genes within the section play in the development and functioning of the brain.

In this week's Science, an excellent review article discusses the progress being made in understanding how these 28 genes, out of the thousands involved in brain development, cause specific aspects of the disorder. The news article "Friendly Faces and Unusual Minds" reviews our increasing understanding of multiple deficits associated with the disorder including: using fMRI to show that WS individuals show significantly lower neuronal activity in a part of the brain used by the spatial processing pathway of the visual system; using MRI scans have revealed structural details of WS-affected brains which revealed different folding patterns in specific areas of the brain; and a multitude of detailed genetic studies to isolate the specific contribution of different genes to the cognitive deficits presented by this disorder.

What I find most interesting about this disorder is the research being carried out on the excessive friendly behavior. Interestingly, while individuals with WS exhibit social fearlessness, they also "display high levels of nonsocial anxiety, such as fear of heights." The article describes a set of experiments that researchers performed using fMRI which showed that WS-affected individuals who were shown threatening faces exhibited a lower level of activation of the amygdala than control groups and a higher activation when shown when shown threatening scenes relative to controls. To date no one has determined the genetic link to these behavioral characteristics.

Last week at the inaugural opening of the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel postulated about a new approach to treating certain brain-related illnesses which I believe may open up an entirely new era of therapeutic development. For example, instead of just studying depression and treating its neurological manifestations, why not look at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, to something like the neurobiology of joy, and try to accentuate those characteristics as well.

Given this logic perhaps one of the values of studying and understanding extreme friendliness found in WS patients could be a new treatment for those with profound social anxiety. Perhaps, Kandel is on to something.

Comments (2) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Emoticeuticals

February 23, 2005

FDA Clears MDMA Trial for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults. People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person's daily life.

In an effort to help traumatized American soldiers the Guardian reports that the US Food and Drug Administration has given the green light for the soldiers to be included in an experiment to see if MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy, can treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Scientists behind the trial in South Carolina think the feelings of emotional closeness reported by those taking the drug could help the soldiers talk about their experiences to therapists. Several victims of rape and sexual abuse with post-traumatic stress disorder, for whom existing treatments are ineffective, have been given MDMA since the research began last year.

Michael Mithoefer, the psychiatrist leading the trial, said: "It's looking very promising. It's too early to draw any conclusions but in these treatment-resistant people so far the results are encouraging. "People are able to connect more deeply on an emotional level with the fact they are safe now."

According to the National Center for PSTD up to 30% of combat veterans suffer from the condition at some point in their lives. If these trials prove to be effective for veterans, it would be wise to open up this effective emoticeutical tool to the broader global public quickly.

Update: 1/3 of active and retired police in the US suffer from PSTD. For more info please see tearsofacop

Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Emoticeuticals

February 11, 2005

DHEA For Depression and Stress Reduction

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Integrative and "alternative" approaches to improving an individual's well-being are finally receiving the respect they deserve. In a recent report, supported by the NIMH and published the Archives of General Psychiatry suggests that the naturally occurring hormone DHEA improves the mood of clinically depressed individuals. In particular, low levels of DHEA in the blood relative to cortisol, correlate to higher levels of depression in individuals in their 20s and those in their 60s.

In another report, "researchers at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder have found that the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone-S (DHEA-S),which is known to enhance memory and reduce depression and aggression in mice, appears to have a role in coping with stress. It is secreted by the outer portion of the adrenal gland in response to stress and the highest levels are achieved at ages twenty to twenty-five, dropping continuously as we age. Soldiers, studied during grueling military survival school exercises, were found to have the fewest symptoms of dissociation, which is known to present a higher risk of developing post traumatic stress disorder, were found in the soldiers with the highest ratio of DHEA-S to the stress hormone, cortisol. They also performed better under pressure, in terms of the survival school exercises. This appears to indicate that the DHEA-S acts as a buffer against a negative stress impact but it is not know exactly what determines how much is produced."

Although DHEA is available over-the-counter, Dr. Andrew Weil recommends that you don't take it without medical supervision as over-the-counter brands of DHEA may not be as reliable as prescription forms.

Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Emoticeuticals

February 10, 2005

Severe Emotional Stress or Heart Attack?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Randall Parker writes today about how severe emotional stress can release chemicals that mimic a heart attack.

"In the Hopkins study, to be published in The New England Journal of Medicine online Feb. 10, the research team found that some people may respond to sudden, overwhelming emotional stress by releasing large amounts of catecholamines (notably adrenalin and noradrenalin, also called epinephrine and norepinephrine) into the blood stream, along with their breakdown products and small proteins produced by an excited nervous system. These chemicals can be temporarily toxic to the heart, effectively stunning the muscle and producing symptoms similar to a typical heart attack, including chest pain, fluid in the lungs, shortness of breath and heart failure.

Upon closer examination, though, the researchers determined that cases of stress cardiomyopathy were clinically very different from a typical heart attack."

Click on the link to read more of Randall's excellent analysis.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Emoticeuticals

February 07, 2005

Is Lovesickness a Psychiatric Disorder?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

The Independent reports today on the growing belief that lovesickness should be categorized as a psychiatric illness:

"Falling in love used to be fun. Now doctors are warning that the throes of passion should be seen as a potentially fatal medical disorder. Psychologists say that "lovesickness" is a genuine disease that needs more awareness and diagnosis....Symptoms can include mania, such as an elevated mood and inflated self-esteem, or depression, revealing itself as tearfulness and insomnia...Aspects of obsessive compulsive disorder can also be found in those experiencing lovesickness, such as preoccupation and obsessively checking for text messages and e-mails...Professor Alex Gardner, a clinical psychologist in Glasgow and a member of the British Psychological Society, said doctors needed to be more aware of lovesickness as a possible diagnosis in their patients. "People can die from a broken heart," he said. "Lovesickness is probably extremely common."

While I have no doubt that lovesickness is common, I am increasingly concerned about the continuing trend of defining mental health problems with terms that do not correlate to the underlying neurobiology of the illness. Broad, top down descriptions of psychiatric conditions like this that are defined primarily via evaluation of externally observed symptoms confuse rather that improve accurate diagnosis and treatment.

I would like to see a neuroimaging study performed on a wide selection of those suffering from lovesickness to see if there is a common neurobiological explanation for this illness. My bet is that there would be little correlation among participants as the definition is too all encompassing.

Comments (7) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Emoticeuticals

October 18, 2004

Do you laugh or cry uncontrollably? Avanir's Emoticeutical Solution

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Posted by Zack Lynch

At last week's BIO Emerging Company Investor Forum in San Francisco I found out that more than one million people across a wide variety of neurological disorders suffer from episodes of uncontrollable laughing and/or crying called the pseudobulbar affect (also known as emotional lability).

It is estimated that 50% of ALS patients, 10% of MS patients, 15% of Alzheimer's patients, and 11% of patients one year after having a stroke suffer from this emotional disorder.

Avanir Pharmaceuticals' CEO Gerald Yakatan shared the clinical trial progress they are making on their targeted emoticeutical, Neurodex, to treat this disorder.

Currently in phase III trials, Neurodex is an excellent example of how our increased understanding of the brain is making it possible to treat specific aspects of mental disorders that cut across different diseases. It also highlights a growing trend in treating mental illness with multiple drugs (see: polypharmacy). For example, an Alzheimer's patient in 2010 will likely be prescribed a "drug cocktail" that includes an emoticeutical like Neurodex, a cogniceutical from Saegis Pharmaceuticals and a sensoceutical to treat age-related sensory decline like hearing loss.

Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Emoticeuticals

February 22, 2004

Empathy is a Hardwired Feeling

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Posted by Zack Lynch

As I mentioned in emotions in art and the brain "emotions and feelings are mediated by distinct neural systems. Whereas emotions are automatic responses to sensory stimuli, feelings are 'private, sbjective experiences' that emerge from the cognitive processing of an emotion eliciting state."

Providing hard evidence of this view is an excellent piece of research reported in this week's Science by University College London neuroscientists, Tania Singer and Ray Dolan (who showed videos of this research at the neuroesthetics conference).

"Human survival depends on the ability to function effectively within a social context. Central to successful social interaction is the ability to understand others intentions and beliefs. This capacity to represent mental states is referred to as "theory of mind" or the ability to "mentalize". Empathy, by contrast, broadly refers to being able to understand what others feel, be it an emotion or a sensory state. Accordingly, empathic experience enables us to understand what it feels like when someone else experiences sadness or happiness, and also pain, touch, or tickling."

An Overview of the Empathy Experiment: (A real stinger)

"To hunt for this form of empathy, the researchers recruited 16 heterosexual couples who were romantically involved and assumed to be attuned to each others feelings. Each man and woman had electrodes attached to their right hand capable of delivering a mild, ticklish shock or a stinging, short jolt of pain.

Each woman then had her brain scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging, while being able to view only the right hand of her beau sitting beside her. Unable to see her loved one's face, her only clue to his state was conveyed symbolically by a set of lights indicating whether he was receiving a mild shock or a stinging jolt.

When the women were subjected to a strong shock, a whole series of brain regions lit up including those on the brain's left side that physically mapped the pain to their hand. The regions of the brain - the anterior insula (AI) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) - involved in the emotional response to pain and other situations, also lit up.

But when their partners were zapped, regions physically mapping the pain were quiet while the AI and ACC and a few other regions lit up in the women's brains. And the signals from those two areas were stronger in women who reported a greater degree of empathy, suggesting these regions mediate empathy.

Singer suspects that our brain's ability to intuit the emotional response of others could have been strongly selected during evolution. "If I do something, it tells me will it make you smash me, will you kill me or will you like it? Being able to predict how others feel might have been necessary for human survival," she says.

I couldn't agree more, empathy is critical to human survival. This research is a great addition to the growing scientific literature on empathy and provides further evidence that animal models of human behavior are insufficient to undertand human behavior and to develop effective neuroceuticals.

Comments (5) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Emoticeuticals

October 16, 2003

An Emotional Revolution

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Posted by Zack Lynch

When I started writing my forthcoming book on our emerging neurosociety several years ago, my working title and focus for the project was -- The Emotional Revolution. Human emotions are extremely complex and depending on who is doing the talking there still exists broad contention about what constitutes emotions.

Human emotions have been honed over millions of years by natural selection to be trigger-happy. Although deeply engrained emotions like fear, anxiety and anger were critical survival behaviors for our ancestors, many human emotions, at least the severity to which they are felt and expressed, no longer provide the same advantages. Instead, they actually get in the way of cooperative efforts to solve problems.

Emotional control, not cognitive enhancement, will be the area where neurotechnology will make the most decisive impact on productivity and society in the coming years. Whether one agrees with the philosopher Thomas Hobbes that our “future hunger” for pleasure drives our decisions or with the political economist John Locke that it is our “uneasiness” with painful circumstances that spurs humans to action, it is clear that pain, pleasure, and every emotion in between, influence our daily decisions.

Comments (2) | Category: Emoticeuticals

June 26, 2003

A Relative Emotional Gauge

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Just as people experience physical pain differently, so too do people experience emotional pain differently.   Relative physical pain indexes are now proven enough to show that different people feel physical pain very differently. 

Neurotechnoloy will enable a similiar relative understanding of individual differences in mental health.  A Relative Emotional Gauge (REG) would help people better empathize with each other or understand the depth of their depression or height of their joy relative to other people's experiences.

So how happy are you today?  I'm an 8!

Comments (0) | Category: Emoticeuticals

March 21, 2003

Emotions and Neurotechnology

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Posted by Zack Lynch

What are emotions? There exists broad contention across disciplines as to what constitutes our emotions.

Physiological and cognitive psychologists view emotions as existing within the individual.  More interpersonally oriented social psychologists and cultural anthropologists view emotions as being created among people. Within the field of neuroscience there is also debate about the biochemical nature of emotions and location of emotions in the brain.

In Looking for Spinoza, Antonio Damasio's third book on the subject, he categorizes emotions as follows:

  • Background emotions: influences of basic metabolic, reflex and regulatory processes
  • Primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, surprise, disgust, joy and happiness--shared by all human societies
  • Social emotions: sympathy, embarassment, shame, guilt, pride, jealousy, envy, gratitude, admiration and contempt

Emotions influence our interpretations of events, giving a slant to our thinking, self-reflection and recollection.  In this respect, emotions play a primary role in our economic, political and social lives.

From an evolutionary perspective, emotions have been honed over millions of years by natural selection to be trigger-happy. In today's modern society we can see that emotions are far from perfectly designed systems.  For example, anger, sadness and depression are mostly counterproductive in a world that has over six billion humans.

Advancing neurotechnology will provide individuals with new tools to modulate, control and change their emotions at an ever-increasing level of accuracy and extent, having a profound influence on how society organizes itself. I will continue to pay special attention to the emotional implications of neurotechnology.

Comments (0) | Category: Emoticeuticals