1. Has Dopamine Got Us Hooked On Technology?

    Research Report by Daniel Weber PHD, MSC Nr124, March 6th 2018.

    In an unprecedented attack of candour, Sean Parker, the 38-year-old founding president of Facebook, recently admitted that the social network was founded not to unite us, but to distract us. “The thought process was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” he said at an event in Philadelphia in November. To achieve this goal, Facebook’s architects exploited a “vulnerability in human psychology”, explained Parker, who resigned from the company in 2005. Whenever someone likes or comments on a post or photograph, he said, “we… give you a little dopamine hit”. Facebook is an empire of empires, then, built upon a molecule.

    Dopamine, discovered in 1957, is one of 20 or so major neurotransmitters, a fleet of chemicals that, like bicycle couriers weaving through traffic, carry urgent messages between neurons, nerves and other cells in the body. These neurotransmitters ensure our hearts keep beating, our lungs keep breathing and, in dopamine’s case, that we know to get a glass of water when we feel thirsty, or attempt to procreate so that our genes may survive our death.

    In the 1950s, dopamine was thought to be largely associated with physical movement after a study showed that Parkinsonism (a group of neurological disorders whose symptoms include tremors, slow movement and stiffness) was caused by dopamine deficiency. In the 1980s, that assumption changed following a series of experiments on rats by Wolfram Schultz, now a professor of neuroscience at Cambridge University, which showed that, inside the midbrain, dopamine relates to the reward we receive for an action. Dopamine, it seemed, was to do with desire, ambition, addiction and sex drive.

    Schultz and his fellow researchers placed pieces of apple behind a screen and immediately saw a major dopamine response when the rat bit into the food. This dopamine process, which is common in all insects and mammals, is, Schultz tells me, at the basis of learning: it anticipates a reward to an action and, if the reward is met, enables the behaviour to become a habit, or, if there’s a discrepancy, to be adapted. (That dishwasher tablet might look like a delicious sweet, but the first fizzing bite will also be the last.) Whether dopamine produces a pleasurable sensation is unclear, says Schultz. But this has not dented its reputation as the miracle bestower of happiness.

    Dopamine inspires us to take actions to meet our needs and desires – anything from turning up the heating to satisfying a craving to spin a roulette wheel – by anticipating how we will feel after they’re met. Pinterest, the online scrapbook where users upload inspirational pictures, contains endless galleries of dopamine tattoos (the chemical symbol contains two outstretched arms of hydroxide, and a three-segmented tail), while Amazon’s virtual shelves sag under the weight of diet books intended to increase dopamine levels and improve mental health.

    “We found a signal in the brain that explains our most profound behaviours, in which every one of us is engaged constantly,” says Shultz. “I can see why the public has become interested.”

    In this way, unlike its obscure co-workers norepinephrine and asparagine, dopamine has become a celebrity molecule. The British clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell once described dopamine as “the Kim Kardashian of molecules”. In the tabloid press, dopamine has become the transmitter for hyperbole. “Are cupcakes as addictive as cocaine?” ran one headline in the Sun, citing a study that showed dopamine was released in the orbital frontal cortex – “the same section activated when cocaine addicts are shown a bag of the class A drug” – when participants were shown pictures of their favourite foods. Still, nowhere is dopamine more routinely name-dropped than in Silicon Valley, where it is hailed as the secret sauce that makes an app, game or social platform “sticky” – the investor term for “potentially profitable”.

    “Even a year or two before the scene about persuasive tech grew up, dopamine was a molecule that had a certain edge and sexiness to it in the cultural zeitgeist,” explains Ramsay Brown, the 28-year-old cofounder of Dopamine Labs, a controversial California startup that promises to significantly increase the rate at which people use any running, diet or game app. “It is the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll molecule. While there are many important and fascinating questions that sit at the base of this molecule, when you say ‘dopamine’, people’s ears prick up in a way they don’t when you say ‘encephalin’ or ‘glutamate’. It’s the known fun transmitter.”

    Fun, perhaps, but as with Kardashian, dopamine’s press is not entirely favourable. In a 2017 article titled “How evil is tech?”, the New York Timescolumnist David Brooks wrote: “Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with ‘hijacking techniques’ that lure us in and create ‘compulsion loops’.” Most social media sites create irregularly timed rewards, Brooks wrote, a technique long employed by the makers of slot machines, based on the work of the American psychologist BF Skinner, who found that the strongest way to reinforce a learned behaviour in rats is to reward it on a random schedule. “When a gambler feels favoured by luck, dopamine is released,” says Natasha Schüll, a professor at New York University and author of Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. This is the secret to Facebook’s era-defining success: we compulsively check the site because we never know when the delicious ting of social affirmation may sound.

    Randomness is at the heart of Dopamine Labs’ service, a system that can be implemented into any app designed to build habitual behaviour. In a running app, for example, this means only issuing encouragement – a high-five badge, or a shower of digital confetti – at random intervals, rather than every time the user completes a run. “When you finish a run, the app communicates with our system and asks whether it would be surprising to him if we congratulated him a little more enthusiastically,” explains Brown. Dopamine Labs’ proprietary AI uses machine learning to tailor the schedule of rewards to an individual. “It might say: actually, right now he’d see it coming, so don’t give it to him now. Or it might say: GO!”

    While the sell seems preposterously flimsy (with a slot machine, for example, at least the random reward is money, a much more compelling prize than any digital badge), Brown says that the running app company has seen significant positive results. “If you do this properly, we see an average 30% improvement in the frequency of how often a person goes for a run.” Dopamine Labs, which currently has 10 clients, has seen similar positive results with many other kinds of app. In one dieting service, which encourages people to track the food they eat, the company saw an 11% increase in food-tracking after integrating Dopamine Labs’ system. A microloan service saw a 14% improvement in how frequently people would pay back their loans on time or early. “An anti-cyberbullying app saw a 167% improvement in how often young people sent encouraging messages to one another by controlling when and how often and when we sent them an animated gif reward,” claims Brown.

    The capacity for so-called “persuasive technology” to influence behaviour in this way is only just becoming understood, but the power of the dopamine system to alter habits is already familiar to drug addicts and smokers. Every habit-forming drug, from amphetamines to cocaine, from nicotine to alcohol, affects the dopamine system by dispersing many times more dopamine than usual. The use of these drugs overruns the neural pathways connecting the reward circuit to the prefrontal cortex, which helps people to tame impulses. The more an addict uses a drug, the harder it becomes to stop.

    “These unnaturally large rewards are not filtered in the brain – they go directly into the brain and overstimulate, which can generate addiction,” explains Shultz. “When that happens, we lose our willpower. Evolution has not prepared our brains for these drugs, so they become overwhelmed and screwed up. We are abusing a useful and necessary system. We shouldn’t do it, even though we can.” Dopamine’s power to negatively affect a life can be seen vividly in the effects of some Parkinson’s drugs, which, in flooding the brain with dopamine, have been shown to turn close to 10% of patients into gambling addicts.

    Brown and his colleagues are aware that they’re playing with fire and claim to have developed a robust ethical framework for the kinds of companies and app-makers with which they will work. “We spend time with them, understand what they’re building and why,” he says. “The ethics test looks something like: should this work in this app? Should this change human behaviours? Does this app encourage human flourishing? If not, does it at least not make the human condition shittier?” To date, Brown claims that Dopamine Labs has turned down both betting companies and free-to-play video game developers, who wanted to use the company’s services to form habits in their players.

    Well-intentioned strategies often produce unintended consequences. “I don’t know whether [these apps] can generate addiction,” says Schultz, who, along with two other researchers, was awarded Denmark’s €1m Brain prize in 2017 for discovering dopamine’s effects. “But the idea behind behavioural economics, that we can change the behaviour of others not via drugs or hitting them on the head, but by putting them into particular situations, is controversial. We are telling other people what is good for them, which carries risks. Training people via systems to release dopamine for certain actions could even cause situations where people can’t then get away from the system. I’m not saying technology companies are doing bad things. They may be helping. But I would be careful.”

    For Brown, however, co-opting these systems to produce positive effects is the safest and most logical way in which to evolve the human mind, and use a natural molecule to form intentional, positive habits. “We can close the gap between aspiration and behaviour and build systems that enrich the human condition and encourage human flourishing,” he says. “Our product is a slot machine that plays you.”

    What dopamine does

    Dopamine, as one of the major neurotransmitters – the bicycle couriers of the brain – carries many different kinds of message, only some of which are known and understood.

    As well as its core function in learning, through identifying the extent to which a reward differs from expectations, dopamine is also vital for movement control, and plays a role in memory, attention, mood, cognition and sleep.

    Recent research has shown that dopamine levels are one of the key differentiators between human beings and other apes; Nenad Sestan and André Sousa of the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut discovered that 1.5% of the neurons in the human striatum produce dopamine, three times more than in the ape striatum.

    “We’re not yet sure of the extent to which our observations explain differences between the human, chimpanzee and other primate brains,” Sestan told New Scientist in November last year. “But we hypothesise that these cells could contribute to human-specific aspects of cognition or behaviour.”

  2. Celiac and Pregnant

    How to deal with nutritional deficiencies & food cravings while expecting.

    Lori Welstead, RD, never expected to receive a diagnosis of celiac disease in November 2015. As a registered dietitian at the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, Welstead had routinely counseled patients about how to eat healthfully while avoiding gluten.She’d been tested for celiac disease a year and a half earlier with negative results. The idea that she would ever develop the disease that dominated her working hours seemed farfetched.

    However, Welstead wasn’t feeling her best that autumn. She suffered from fatigue and anxiety and she had gastrointestinal issues that she thought might be irritable bowel syndrome. Her vitamin B12 levels were a little low and she was slightly anemic. Most concerning, she’d had two miscarriages and was now having trouble conceiving at all.

    So when the center’s yearly celiac screening was offered, she decided to take advantage of the opportunity. A few weeks later, she got a call from Stefano Guandalini, MD, the founder and director of the celiac center, now professor emeritus. He told her that her blood work was positive for celiac disease.

    Welstead reeled from the news. But after the diagnosis was confirmed by biopsy, it didn’t take her long to practice what she preached to her patients and commit to a new way of living. Within a year of going gluten-free, she was able to get pregnant.

    That prompted another challenge: being pregnant with celiac disease. New to the gluten-free diet, Welstead was concerned about her nutritional status and how it would affect her developing baby. Now that Saltines were off limits, she had to figure out gluten-free foods to ease her queasy stomach. And she had to find substitutes to quell her pregnancy cravings.

    Fertility & Pregnancy

    There’s ample scientific evidence that untreated celiac disease, characterized by inflammation and nutrient deficiencies, can lead to infertility. There can be issues during pregnancy, too. If a woman with untreated celiac does conceive, the fetus potentially could be at risk: An Italian study published in 2010 demonstrated that anti-transglutaminase (anti-tTG) antibodies in the blood—a hallmark of untreated celiac disease—can interfere with the function of the placenta, possibly leading to early loss of the pregnancy.

    The key word is untreated. Once a woman with celiac disease starts eating gluten-free, getting and staying pregnant often become much easier.

    “A number of pregnancy-related problems, such as miscarriages, premature birth and low birth weight, have been reported in celiac disease. Fortunately, these risks tend to be restricted to undiagnosed (and therefore untreated) celiac disease,” says Benjamin Lebwohl, MD, MS, director of clinical research at the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University in New York. “After the diagnosis, these risks largely revert to the same as the general population.” Lebwohl and his team conducted a study examining pregnancy outcomes in women with diagnosed celiac disease whose follow-up biopsies showed intestinal healing. These results were compared with women whose follow-up biopsies revealed continued villous atrophy.

    “We found that there was no difference in birth outcomes,” he says. “Overall, the rate of problems related to childbirth was low in both groups, since these were all mothers whose celiac disease was already diagnosed” and they were living gluten-free.

    Eating Gluten-Free for Two

    Because it can take time for the small intestine to heal on a gluten-free diet, newly diagnosed women who are pregnant or are trying to become pregnant face special nutritional challenges.

    teddy bear

    ©GETTY IMAGES PLUS/ISTOCK/FOTOSTORM

    “Ideally, before trying to get pregnant, women should wait for their celiac serology or blood work to normalize, which typically takes around six months,” says Cheryl Harris, MPH, RD, a dietitian in Fairfax, Virginia, who works with celiac clients.

    Newly diagnosed women may be deficient in iron, folate, vitamin B12, vitamin D, zinc, copper and magnesium.

    “Each of these nutrients are critical for growing a healthy baby,” Harris says. “Additionally, most wheat-based processed starches have a nutritional safety net built in. Breads and cereals are enriched with a range of B vitamins, iron and calcium. Gluten-free foods are generally not enriched, so anyone on a gluten-free diet may be more prone to nutrient deficiencies.”

    Anemia can also be an issue. Pregnant women are generally at risk of being anemic and having untreated celiac disease adds to that risk. About half of newly diagnosed celiac patients are anemic, Harris says.

    To boost a pregnant woman’s nutritional status, Harris and other experts recommend their patients limit eating processed gluten-free substitutes and instead choose foods that are naturally gluten-free—vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, poultry, fish (varieties that are high in omega 3 and low in mercury, such as wild salmon and trout) and whole grains, such as quinoa, teff, buckwheat and brown and black rice.

    “Aim for three or more cups of veggies a day, two or more cups of fruit, as well as nuts and seeds as snacks and gluten-free whole grains,” Harris advises. For added nutrition, she suggests rotating in more salads, adding chia or flax seed to yogurt and eating gluten-free oatmeal, if tolerated.

    Welstead relied on just this kind of diet during her pregnancy. “During the summer, I would always have things like sliced cucumber because it was crunchy,” she says. “I would do chia pudding with coconut milk or another nut milk. Yogurt is another great choice to get your protein and calcium and it’s a probiotic.”

    She also recommends gluten-free protein bars, popcorn and nut butters, particularly travel-friendly individual packets that can be squeezed onto a banana or apple slices for a quick eat-anywhere snack. “Or eat the peanut butter by itself for some good fats and proteins,” she says.

    A gluten-free prenatal vitamin is important, too. Welstead suggests looking for one that’s not only labeled gluten-free but also verified by USP for meeting product quality standards. She also suggests an omega-3 DHA supplement, which she says can benefit the brain health of the fetus.

    Welstead, who gave birth to a healthy baby girl in 2017, says the key to feeling satisfied on the gluten-free diet during her pregnancy was planning ahead. She cooked meals in advance and always had safe snacks at the ready when cravings struck.

    “Some days were harder than others with cravings,” she says. “But I was able to find safe swap-outs.”

    Her diligence paid off: She kept to the diet and her pregnancy went well.

    “Remember that the gluten-free diet is the ‘medication’ for celiac disease,” Welstead says. “Take it one day at a time and stick with a strict gluten-free diet for a safe and successful pregnancy.”

    Health and medical writer Laurie Saloman, MS, is the parent of a young adult with 
    celiac disease.

  3. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort

    Recent research conducted by a group of French Researchers concluded that consuming ultra-processed foods can increase the risk of developing cancer. This was published in : BMJ 2018; 360 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k322 (Published 14 February 2018)Cite this as: BMJ 2018;360:k322

    Objective To assess the prospective associations between consumption of ultra-processed food and risk of cancer.

    Design Population based cohort study.

    Setting and participants 104 980 participants aged at least 18 years (median age 42.8 years) from the French NutriNet-Santé cohort (2009-17). Dietary intakes were collected using repeated 24 hour dietary records, designed to register participants’ usual consumption for 3300 different food items. These were categorised according to their degree of processing by the NOVA classification.

    Main outcome measures Associations between ultra-processed food intake and risk of overall, breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer assessed by multivariable Cox proportional hazard models adjusted for known risk factors.

    Results Ultra-processed food intake was associated with higher overall cancer risk (n=2228 cases; hazard ratio for a 10% increment in the proportion of ultra-processed food in the diet 1.12 (95% confidence interval 1.06 to 1.18); P for trend<0.001) and breast cancer risk (n=739 cases; hazard ratio 1.11 (1.02 to 1.22); P for trend=0.02). These results remained statistically significant after adjustment for several markers of the nutritional quality of the diet (lipid, sodium, and carbohydrate intakes and/or a Western pattern derived by principal component analysis).

  4. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort

    A study by a group of researchers from Paris, France was recently posted in the BMJ (British Medical Journal). Their objective was to assess the associations between consumption of ultra-processed food and risk of cancer. The study consisted of 104 980 participants aged at least 18 years. Dietary intakes were collected using repeated 24 hour dietary records, designed to register participants’ usual consumption for 3300 different food items. These were categorised according to their degree of processing by the NOVA classification. Associations between ultra-processed food intake and risk of overall, breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer were assessed.

    The Results: Ultra-processed food intake was associated with higher overall cancer risk and breast cancer risk.

    Their Conclusions: In this large prospective study, a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a significant increase of greater than 10% in risks of overall and breast cancer.

    To see the full article, go to: http://www.bmj.com/content/360/bmj.k322

  5. Zinc can halt the growth of cancer cells, study says

    Zinc supplements can significantly inhibit the proliferation of esophageal cancer cells, according to a new study co-authored by a University of Texas at Arlington researcher.

    Previous studies had shown that zinc is essential for maintaining human health and protects the esophagus from cancer. However, it has never been fully understood why zinc has the ability to prevent cancer in the esophagus. In this study, a team led by Zui Pan, an associate professor of nursing at UTA’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation and a noted esophageal cancer researcher, discovered that zinc selectively halts the growth of cancer cells but not normal esophageal epithelial cells. The finding was published this month in The FASEB Journal, the official journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

    Esophageal cancer is the sixth leading cause of human cancer deaths around the world, according to the National Cancer Institute. The institute estimates that there were almost 16,000 esophageal cancer deaths in the United States in 2016. The average five-year survival rate is less than 20 percent. Pan said this study could provide a pathway for better esophageal cancer prevention and treatment.

    “Zinc deficiency has been found in many cancer patients,” said Pan, whose study was funded in part by a research grant from the National Institutes of Health — National Cancer Insitute. “Both clinical data and animal studies have shown that this mineral is very important for overall body health and for cancer prevention.”

    Zinc is an important element in many proteins and many enzymes and the absence of zinc makes it impossible for cells to function, she added. ”But previously we didn’t know why the same physiological concentrations of zinc inhibit cancer cell growth but not normal cells. Our study, for the first time to our knowledge, reveals that zinc impedes overactive calcium signals in cancer cells, which is absent in normal cells, and thus zinc selectively inhibits cancer cell growth.” said Pan. “It now appears that zinc and calcium can have a cross talk, meaning that they can be linked.”

    An insufficient amount of zinc can lead to the development of cancers and other diseases, Pan said.

    “That’s why it is important to have a good diet,” she said. Zinc enriched foods include spinach, flax seeds, beef, pumpkin seeds and seafood like shrimp and oysters. Pan said that in the future they will study these two signals link, how they impact each other and how researchers can take advantage of what they know. Such a step will guide them in developing a better prevention and treatment strategy, she said.

    Anne Bavier, dean of UTA’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation, called Pan’s study a classic example of UTA’s commitment to high impact research. ”It re-affirms UTA’s position as a major player in the global battle against cancer,” said Bavier. “Zui’s work on esophageal cancer gets straight to the heart our goal at the College of Nursing and Health Innovation to help solve health problems to build a healthier world.”


    Story Source:

    Materials provided by University of Texas at ArlingtonNote: Content may be edited for style and length.


    Journal Reference:

    1. Sangyong Choi, Chaochu Cui, Yanhong Luo, Sun-Hee Kim, Jae-Kyun Ko, Xiaofang Huo, Jianjie Ma, Li-wu Fu, Rhonda F. Souza, Irina Korichneva, Zui Pan. Selective inhibitory effects of zinc on cell proliferation in esophageal squamous cell carcinoma through Orai1The FASEB Journal, 2017; fj.201700227RRR DOI: 10.1096/fj.201700227RRR