Equation to predict happiness

The happiness of over 18,000 people worldwide has been predicted by an equation developed by researchers at UCL, with results showing that moment-to-moment happiness reflects not just how well things are going, but whether things are going better

The happiness of over 18,000 people worldwide has been predicted by a mathematical equation developed by researchers at UCL, with results showing that moment-to-moment happiness reflects not just how well things are going, but whether things are going better than expected.

The new equation accurately predicts exactly how happy people will say they are from moment to moment based on recent events, such as the rewards they receive and the expectations they have during a decision-making task. Scientists found that overall wealth accumulated during the experiment was not a good predictor of happiness. Instead, moment-to-moment happiness depended on the recent history of rewards and expectations. These expectations depended, for example, on whether the available options could lead to good or bad outcomes. Continue reading “Equation to predict happiness”

Young users see Facebook as ‘dead and buried’

A study of how teenagers use social media has found that Facebook is “not just on the slide, it is basically dead and buried”, but that the network is morphing into a tool for keeping in touch with older family members

Photo: Alamy


1:30PM GMT 27 Dec 2013

A study of how older teenagers use social media has found that Facebook is “not just on the slide, it is basically dead and buried” and is being replaced by simpler social networks such as Twitter and Snapchat.

Young people now see the site as “uncool” and keep their profiles live purely to stay in touch with older relatives, among whom it remains popular. Continue reading “Young users see Facebook as ‘dead and buried’”

‘Memories’ pass between generations

By James Gallagher Health and science reporter, BBC News

Generations of a family


Behaviour can be affected by events in previous generations which have been passed on through a form of genetic memory, animal studies suggest.

Experiments showed that a traumatic event could affect the DNA in sperm and alter the brains and behaviour of subsequent generations.

A Nature Neuroscience study shows mice trained to avoid a smell passed their aversion on to their “grandchildren”.

Continue reading “‘Memories’ pass between generations”

Ancient humans ‘rampantly interbred’ with Neanderthals and a mystery species in Lord Of The Rings-style world of different creatures

  • Genome  analysis of Neanderthal and human-like group called  Denisovans
  • It reveals  ancient bedfellows may have included  ‘mystery human ancestor’
  • Has been  likened to Lord Of The Rings world of creatures which  interbred

By  Daily Mail Reporter

PUBLISHED: 17:13 EST, 19  November 2013 |  UPDATED: 09:55 EST, 20 November 2013

Ancient humans rampantly indulged in  interspecies sex in a Lord Of The Rings-type world of different  human  groups, new DNA analysis has revealed.

And our ancient bedfellows appear to have  included a ‘mystery human ancestor’, which has not yet been identified.

Genome analysis from a Neanderthal and  another group of ancient humans, the Denisovans, was presented to a meeting of  the Royal Society in London, and it included ‘snippets’ of  the mystery  DNA  – neither human nor Neanderthal.

It suggests that interbreeding was rampant  and more widespread between the human-like groups living in Europe and Asia more  than 30,000 years ago than previously thought, scientists say.

Researchers compared DNA from Neanderthals (skull, pictured) and another group of ancient humans called Denisovans 

Researchers compared DNA from Neanderthals (skull,  pictured) and another group of ancient humans called Denisovans

Continue reading “Ancient humans ‘rampantly interbred’ with Neanderthals and a mystery species in Lord Of The Rings-style world of different creatures”

1 in 2000 Britons may carry ‘mad cow’ prion protein


“We were all supposed to die of mad cow disease!” People who accuse public health agencies of crying wolf are fond of citing the discovery, in 1996, that a cattle disease widespread in the UK causes the deadly disease vCJD in people. Despite widespread dismay at the time, there have been only 177 cases of vCJD in the country – and 51 elsewhere – to date.

The biggest survey yet, however, shows  the UK did not really dodge that bullet – it just hasn’t killed many of the people it hit. What we don’t know is how many might still die.

A study of 32,000 appendixes removed between 2000 and 2012 from British people born between 1941 and 1985 suggests that 1 in every 2000 people in the UK is carrying the abnormal protein, or prion, that causes the disease. This means as many as 31,000 people may carry the prion – twice the previous best estimate.

The researchers, mostly from the UK’s national human and animal health labs and led by Sebastian Brandner of University College London, warn that we do not know what further damage those infections may cause. In particular, there seems to have been less transmission of the prion via blood transfusions than would have been expected. The researchers are calling for development of a reliable blood test for the prion so we can make sure it is not spreading undetected.

Silver lining

Half the people infected are at particular risk: they carry the genetic form of the protein that has been found in all cases of vCJD to date. However, the researchers warn that they do not know whether such people will simply be lifelong carriers, or may one day develop vCJD. Meanwhile, other genetic forms of the prion could be affecting people in unrecognised ways.

The silver lining, says Richard Salmon, a retired neurologist who wrote an editorial accompanying the research, is that recent research shows that the vCJD prion behaves much like the pathological proteins behind a number of other diseases involving brain degeneration, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. These are huge threats to ageing populations.

“We have developed, of necessity, a huge body of expertise in studying prion diseases in Britain,” says Salmon. This knowledge could be used to study treatments for such things as Alzheimer’s. However, he fears as worries about vCJD wane, funding to maintain that expertise is waning too.

How it happened

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is caused by a misfolded protein – a prion – which accumulates in brain tissue, causing death. It is spread when susceptible animals eat tissues from infected animals that contain the prion. BSE was discovered in British cattle in 1987 and has been blamed on the widespread use of cattle remains as cattle fodder in the UK. The UK government initially claimed the prion could not spread to humans – but it was found to do so in 1996.

By that time inadequate controls meant infected beef had been in the human food chain for years, and there were fears of a mass plague of agonising, invariably fatal vCJD. Fortunately, they did not materialise, but it was unclear whether that was because the prion had not infected people or because for some reason it didn’t make them sick.

A decade ago it was discovered that the prion lodges in the appendix, offering a way to search for it in living people who have their appendix removed. Early studies suggested widespread infection was possible, but the samples were too small to be sure.

Where we are now

Now it is clear that people of all ages and across the country were widely infected, regardless of whether they had the genetic form of the prion protein associated with the disease. In fact, more people with the alternate, resistant forms were found to be carrying the prion than would be expected if its distribution was random, for reasons unknown.

“This shows we need to understand more about the natural history of the prion,” says Salmon. “Infections don’t lead to disease as readily as we originally feared, but we don’t know why, or whether these infections have a sting in their tail.”

Models suggest infected people could still develop vCJD in coming decades. Salmon worries that the prion might cause diseases in people with the resistant genotypes that do not look like classic vCJD and so could be missed. This is especially likely in older people, in whom dementia is more common and not often investigated after death.

Meanwhile we could soon discover even more precisely who was infected during the days of BSE in the UK. Tests for prions in blood are almost ready. Markus Moser, CEO of Prionics, a BSE test manufacturer in Zurich, Switzerland, says his company and the National Institutes of Health in the US have developed the eQuIC assay, which detects prions at low enough levels that “in hamster and sheep, it works as a blood test”.

It has not been validated on blood samples from people with vCJD, because these have not been made available, says Moser – but the test can detect highly diluted vCJD brain homogenates, which contain the prion, in blood.

Journal references: BMJ, DOI: 10.1136/bmj.f5675; Salmon’s editorial



Leaky microwaves can power your kitchen gadgets


If you are fed up with replacing the batteries in your kitchen gadgets why not use the energy that leaks from your microwave oven to power them instead? Engineers in Japan have managed to scavenge enough energy to run low-power devices such as oven thermometers, cooking timers and digital scales this way.

Electronics engineer Yoshihiro Kawahara at the University of Tokyo says he was inspired by the notion of “space solar power”, – in which colossal solar panel farms placed in orbit will one day beam energy down to Earth in the form of microwaves that are converted to electricity.

A microwave oven uses a device called a magnetron to generate electromagnetic waves with a wavelength of 12.5 centimetres and a frequency of 2.4 gigahertz – enough for vibrating water molecules to heat food. Although a waveguide delivers the microwaves into the food chamber some still escape through the gap around the oven door and through the metal-meshed window. So, for consumer safety reasons, the US Food And Drug Administration stipulates that leakage from a microwave oven cannot exceed a power density of 5 milliwatts per square centimetre at approximately 5 cm from the oven surface.

With a team from Georgia Institute of technology in Atlanta, Kawahara began studying the energy leakage from a range of ovens to see what useful power levels might be harvestable to replace button cell batteries in kitchen gadgets.

Kawahara’s leakage tests on a range of popular ovens, including those manufactured by Sharp, Panasonic, Whirlpool and National. The average leakage is generally lower than the legal limit at around 0.5 milliwatts per square centimetre, he told a conference on ubiquitous computing in Zurich, Switzerland on 11 September. That made around 1 milliwatt of power available in front of the oven.

To harness that energy, they then designed a power harvester the size of a US quarter, or UK 10 pence piece, that combined with a 1-cm-long microwave antenna to generate an electric current that could charge a circuit. “The energy accumulated over a two-minute run of the microwave oven was enough to operate some low-power kitchen tools for a few minutes,” says Kawahara. So by leaving gadgets close to the microwave, they would be gradually charged up enough to operate. He says the harvester is small enough to be embedded in most kitchen gadgets.

Michael Rodrigues, a researcher in energy harvesting technology at University College London, says the microwave scavenging technique has promise in a growing area: it could fuel development of energy-neutral sensor networks that make homes smarter without boosting their carbon footprint, he says.



Earliest Known Iron Artifacts Come from Outer Space

Researchers have shown that ancient Egyptian iron beads held at the UCL Petrie Museum were hammered from pieces of meteorites, rather than iron ore. The objects, which trace their origins to outer space, also predate the emergence of iron smelting by two millennia. (Credit: UCL Petrie Museum/Rob Eagle)

Aug. 19, 2013 — Researchers have shown that ancient Egyptian iron beads held at the UCL Petrie Museum were hammered from pieces of meteorites, rather than iron ore. The objects, which trace their origins to outer space, also predate the emergence of iron smelting by two millennia.

Carefully hammered into thin sheets before being rolled into tubes, the nine beads — which are over 5000 years-old — were originally strung into a necklace together with other exotic minerals such as gold and gemstones, revealing the high value of this exotic material in ancient times. The study is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Professor Thilo Rehren (UCL Archaeology, Qatar), lead author of the paper, said: “The shape of the beads was obtained by smithing and rolling, most likely involving multiple cycles of hammering, and not by the traditional stone-working techniques such as carving or drilling which were used for the other beads found in the same tomb.”

The team’s results show that in the fourth millennium BC metalworkers had already mastered the smithing of meteoritic iron, an iron-nickel alloy much harder and more brittle than the more commonly worked copper, developing techniques that went on to define the iron age.

As a result metalworkers had already nearly two millennia of experience of working with meteoritic iron when iron smelting was introduced in the mid-second millennium BC. This knowledge was essential for the development of iron smelting and the production of iron from iron ore, enabling iron to replace copper and bronze as the main metals used.

Excavated in 1911, in a pre-dynastic cemetery near the village of el-Gerzeh in Lower Egypt, the beads were already completely corroded when they were discovered. As a result, the team used x-ray methods to determine whether the beads were actually meteoric iron, and not magnetite, which can often be mistaken to be corroded iron due to similar properties.

By scanning the beads with beam of neutrons and gamma-rays, the team were able to reveal the unique texture and also high concentration of nickel, cobalt, phosphorus and germanium — which is only found in trace amounts in iron derived from ore — that is characteristics of meteoric iron, without having to attempt invasive analysis which could potentially damage these rare objects.

Professor Rehren said: “The really exciting outcome of this research is that we were for the first time able to demonstrate conclusively that there are typical trace elements such as cobalt and germanium present in these beads, at levels that only occur in meteoritic iron.

“We are also excited to be able to see the internal structure of the beads, revealing how they were rolled and hammered into form. This is very different technology from the usual stone bead drilling, and shows quite an advanced understanding of how the metal smiths worked this rather difficult material.”

Harms from breast cancer screening outweigh benefits if death caused by treatment is included

Contact: Emma Dickinson edickinson@bmjgroup.com 44-020-738-36529 BMJ-British Medical Journal

Cancer expert remains to be convinced by breast screening review

Harms from breast cancer screening outweigh benefits if death caused by treatment is included

Michael Baum, Professor emeritus of surgery at University College London says that, while deaths from breast cancer may be avoided, any benefit will be more than outweighed by deaths due to the long term adverse effects of treatment.

He estimates that, for every 10, 000 women invited for screening, three to four breast cancer deaths are avoided at the cost of 2.72 to 9.25 deaths from the long term toxicity of radiotherapy.

These figures contrast with an independent report on breast cancer screening, led by Sir Michael Marmot and published in November last year. Marmot and his committee were charged with asking whether the screening programme should continue, and if so, what women should be told about the risks of overdiagnosis.

They concluded that screening should continue because it prevented 43 deaths from breast cancer for every 10,000 women invited for screening.

The downside was an estimated 19% rate of overdiagnosis: 129 of the 681 cancers detected in those 10,000 women would have done them no harm during their lifetime. However, those women would have undergone unnecessary treatment, including surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

But despite this higher than previous estimate of overdiagnosis, they concluded that the breast screening programme should continue.

The report also judged that screening reduces the risk of dying from breast cancer by 20%. But Professor Baum disputes these figures, saying the analysis takes no account of improvements in treatment since these trials were done, which will reduce the benefits of screening. Nor does it make use of more recent observational data.

With these data included, estimated rates of overdiagnosis as a result of screening increase to up to 50%, he argues.

This is important because it can change the decisions women make when invited for screening. In a study also published today, researchers at the University of Sydney explored attitudes to screening in a sample of 50 women. Many of the women were surprised when they were told about overdiagnosis and most said they would attend screening if overdiagnosis rates were 30% or lower, but a rate of 50% made most of them reconsider.

An accompanying editorial points out that the harms of screening will reduce as more effective diagnostic  processes develop to inform less harmful and more personalised treatments. In the meantime, it says women need up to date and transparent information about the benefits and harms of screening to help them make informed choices.

Brain and nervous system damaged by low-level exposure to organophosphate pesticides

Contact: Dave Weston d.weston@ucl.ac.uk 44-020-310-83844 University College London

Scientists have found that low-level exposure to organophosphates (OPs) produces lasting decrements in neurological and cognitive function. Memory and information processing speed are affected to a greater degree than other cognitive functions such as language.

The systematic review of the literature was carried out by researchers at UCL and the Open University. It is the first to attempt a quantitative evaluation of the data assimilated from 14 studies and more than 1,600 participants. The researchers used meta-analysis to obtain an overview of the literature and their findings are published in the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology.

“Meta-analysis combines the results of several studies and moves the discussion away from individual pieces of research, towards an overview of a body of literature,” says lead author Dr Sarah Mackenzie Ross (UCL Clinical, Educational & Health Psychology).

“This is considered to be the method of choice in situations where research findings may be used to inform public policy,” explains Professor Chris McManus (UCL Clinical, Educational & Health Psychology), co-author of the study.

Dr Mackenzie Ross continues: “This is the first time anyone has analysed the literature concerning the neurotoxicity of organophosphate pesticides, using the statistical technique of meta-analysis.

“The analysis reveals that the majority of well-designed studies undertaken over the last 20 years find a significant association between low-level exposure to organophosphates and impaired cognitive function.”

Pesticides prevent millions of people from starving to death and from contracting disease, but they are also harmful to humans under certain circumstances. Derived from World War II nerve gas agents, organophosphate pesticides are the most widely used insecticides in the world. They are used extensively in agriculture, by the military and also for domestic purposes.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) organophosphate pesticides are one of the most hazardous pesticides to vertebrate animals, responsible for many cases of poisoning worldwide.

The toxic effects of high level poisoning are well established but the possibility that long-term low-level exposure to OPs in doses below that causing acute toxicity causes ill health is controversial.

“In the UK a number of occupational groups have expressed concern that their health has been affected by exposure to organophosphates,” explains Dr Virginia Harrison (Open University), co-author of the study. This includes sheep farmers, who between 1988 and 1991 were required to dip sheep yearly in pesticide formulations containing OPs. Between 1985 and 1998 more than 600 reports of ill health following exposure to sheep dip were received by a government adverse reaction surveillance scheme.

Other groups affected include:

(1) Gulf War Veterans, who were exposed to pesticides on a daily basis during their tour of duty to protect them from pests such as sand flies, mosquitoes and fleas which carry infectious diseases

(2) airline pilots and cabin crew, who can be exposed to organophosphates in engine oil.

The researchers hope their findings will be of interest to Government advisory committees and departments who are currently reviewing the neurotoxicity of low level exposure to OPs; as well as farmers, Gulf War veterans and aviation workers who believe their health has been affected by exposure to OPs.


Notes for Editors

1. For more information or to speak to Dr Sarah Mackenzie Ross please contact Dave Weston in the UCL Media Relations Office on tel: +44 (0)20 3108 3844, out of hours +44 (0)7917 271 364, e-mail: d.weston@ucl.ac.uk

2. ‘Neurobehavioral problems following low-level exposure to organophosphate pesticides: a systematic and meta-analytic review’ is published online in the Critical Reviews in Toxicology. Copies of the paper are available from UCL Media Relations.

About UCL (University College London)

Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. We are among the world’s top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. UCL currently has 24,000 students from almost 140 countries, and more than 9,500 employees. Our annual income is over £800 million.

www.ucl.ac.uk | Follow us on Twitter @uclnews

High-fat ketogenic diet effectively treats persistent childhood seizures

2010 study posted for filing

Contact: Ekaterina Pesheva
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions

The high-fat ketogenic diet can dramatically reduce or completely eliminate debilitating seizures in most children with infantile spasms, whose seizures persist despite medication, according to a Johns Hopkins Children’s Center study published online April 30 in the journal Epilepsia.

Infantile spasms, also called West syndrome, is a stubborn form of epilepsy that often does not get better with antiseizure drugs. Because poorly controlled infantile spasms may cause brain damage, the Hopkins team’s findings suggest the diet should be started at the earliest sign that medications aren’t working.

“Stopping or reducing the number of seizures can go a long way toward preserving neurological function, and the ketogenic diet should be our immediate next line of defense in children with persistent infantile spasms who don’t improve with medication,” says senior investigator Eric Kossoff, M.D., a pediatric neurologist and director of the ketogenic diet program at Hopkins Children’s.

The ketogenic diet, made up of high-fat foods and few carbohydrates, works by triggering biochemical changes that eliminate seizure-causing short circuits in the brain’s signaling system. It has been used successfully in several forms of epilepsy.

A small 2002 study by the same Hopkins team showed the diet worked well in a handful of children with infantile spasms. The new study is the largest analysis thus far showing just how effective the diet can be in children with this condition.

Of the 104 children treated by the Hopkins team, nearly 40 percent, or 38 children, became seizure-free for at least six months after being on the diet for anywhere from just a few days to 20 months. Of the 38, 30 have remained so without a relapse for at least two years.

After three months on the diet, one-third of the children had 90 percent fewer seizures, and after nine months on the diet, nearly half of the children in the study had 90 percent fewer seizures. Nearly two-thirds had half as many seizures after six months on the diet.

Nearly two-thirds of the children experienced improvement in their neurological and cognitive development, and nearly 30 percent were weaned off antiseizure medications after starting the diet.

Most of the children continued taking their medication even after starting the diet, the researchers say, because the two are not mutually exclusive and can often work in synergy.

Researchers also used the diet as first-line therapy in18 newly diagnosed infants never treated with drugs, 10 of whom became seizure free within two weeks of starting the diet. The finding suggests that, at least in some children, the diet may work well as first-line therapy, but the researchers say they need further and larger studies to help them identify patients for whom the diet is best used before medications. Hopkins Children’s neurologists are actively using the ketogenic diet as first-line treatment in children with infantile spasms with promising results.

Side effects, including constipation, heartburn, diarrhea and temporary spikes in cholesterol levels, occurred in one-third of the children, with six percent of them experiencing diminished growth.

Despite these side effects, a recent study by Kossoff and his team showed that the ketogenic diet is safe long term.

Conflict of interest disclosure: Dr. Kossoff has received grant support from Nutricia Inc., for unrelated research. The terms of these arrangements are being managed by the Johns Hopkins University in accordance with its conflict-of-interest policies.



The research was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health.

Co-investigators include Amanda Hong, Zahava Turner and Rana Hamdy, all of Hopkins.

Related on the Web:

High-Fat Ketogenic Diet to Control Seizures Is Safe Over Long Term http://www.hopkinschildrens.org/high-fat-ketogenic-diet-to-control-seizures-is-safe-over-long-term.aspx

Infantile Spasms Information (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke) http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/infantilespasms/infantilespasms.htm

Daily Potassium Citrate Wards Off Kidney Stones in Seizure Patients on High-Fat Diet http://www.hopkinschildrens.org/Daily_Potassium_Citrate_Wards_Off_Kidney_Stones_in_Seizure_Patients_On_High-Fat_Diet.aspx

High Cholesterol Levels Drop Naturally in Children on High-Fat Antiseizure Diet http://www.hopkinschildrens.org/high-cholesterol-levels-drop-children-high-fat-anti-seizure-diet.aspx

Modified Atkins Diet Effectively Treats Childhood Seizures http://www.hopkinschildrens.org/Modified-Atkins-Diet-Treats-Childhood-Seizures.aspx

Carson Harris-A Patient Story http://www.hopkinschildrens.org/tpl_rlinks_nobanner.aspx?id=5972&terms=carson+harris

Journal Epilepsia http://www.epilepsia.com/

Crazy in love: What happens in your brain when you really do have chemistry

By Victoria Fletcher

PUBLISHED:17:00 EST, 10  November 2012| UPDATED:17:00 EST, 10 November 2012


You may wonder why anyone in the throes of an  illicit affair would risk their marriage, family and career for the sake of a  what may seem like an  irrational crush.

But doctors have begun to unravel the mystery  of why love can make us giddy, irrational and even ridiculous.

Scanning technology allows neurologists to  unearth incredible images of what happens in our brains when we fall in  love.

Dumb love: When we are passionate about a person it makes parts of our brain shut down, including the ones controlling fear and judgement 

Dumb love: When we are passionate about a person it  makes parts of our brain shut down, including the ones controlling fear and  judgement

They have mapped the chemical changes that  occur and discovered the parts of the brain that activate – and more  importantly, the parts that shut down – during the heady days of  courtship.

And far from being blissful, they have  discovered how it can make us nervous and unstable.

They hope it may also one day reveal why a  few of us might overstep the mark when dealing with the object of our  affections.


The frontal cortex, vital to judgment, shuts  down when we fall in love. MRI scans show this de-activation occurs only when  someone is shown a photo of the person they adore, causing them to suspend all  criticism or doubt.

Semir Zeki, professor of neuro-aesthetics at  University College London, says: ‘When you look at someone you are passionate  about, some areas of the brain become active,’ he says. ‘But a large part is  de-activated, the part that plays a role in judgment.’


Prof Zeki believes the brain may behave in  this way for ‘higher biological purposes’ – it makes reproduction more likely.  If judgment is suspended, the most unlikely pair can get together and reproduce.  Someone in love will still be capable of making other major decisions in their  lives, from striking a business deal to choosing a new mortgage.

And this sanity makes it harder for friends  to convince them  ‘they have taken leave of their senses’ when it comes to  an ill-advised affair.

Brain scans have also shown the area of the  brain that controls fear, and another region involved in negative emotions,  close  down, explaining why people feel  so happy with the world – and  unafraid of what might go wrong – when they fall head over heels.


Studies have shown brain chemical dopamine is  at higher levels in those in love. Dopamine is key to our experiences of  pleasure and pain, linked to desire, addiction, euphoria, and a surge may cause  such acute feelings of reward that it makes love hard to give up.

Tests show that taking opioid drugs such as  cocaine have a similar effect on dopamine as love.

A side effect of rising dopamine levels is a  reduction in another chemical, serotonin, a key hormone in our moods and  appetite.

Scream for love: Levels of adrenaline released when frightened means that two people going through a scary experience together can fall madly in love 

Scream for love: Levels of adrenaline released when  frightened means that two people going through a scary experience together can  fall madly in love

Serotonin levels may fall in a similar way to  those seen in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, explaining why love can  make us feel anxious and jittery.

The love chemical we are most familiar with  is adrenaline. This hormone is why our heart races, palms sweat and mouth goes  dry when we see the person we like.

The same hormone is also released when we are  frightened. This means that two people only vaguely attracted to one another can  fall madly in love if they go through an exciting or scary experience together.  It may also explain the lure of forbidden love.


Psychologists are still trying to understand  why some become dangerously obsessed and risk everything for love. Dr David Nias  is a psychologist and author on love, and a specialist in stalkers. Although an  extreme end of the ‘love spectrum’, stalkers do shed light on why people do  inconceivable things when in love.

‘The emotion of love snowballs for stalkers.  It becomes a mental disorder and leads them to be delusional. Sadly we don’t  know much more about its causes.’

But if someone gets treatment in which they  learn to think  differently and often more positively, they can recover  from their obsession and look back in amazement at how they behaved.

Dr Nias says there is a distinct personality  type involved in this one-sided love: the over-emotional and highly  imaginative.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2230969/Crazy-love-What-happens-brain-really-chemistry.html#ixzz2BvwJYA1d Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

Is there a savant inside all of us?

Savants have almost super-human abilities in art, music or memory – and not all are born that way. But is severe head trauma the only way to become a ‘sudden savant’?

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By William Langley

7:30AM BST 04 Oct 2012


On Southport’s stately seafront, the opening of a new art exhibition is drawing a late summer crowd. Long and unusually complex in the planning, it features the paintings of Tommy McHugh, an ex-builder from nearby Liverpool whose work has attracted worldwide attention.

Despite the appreciative buzz, Tommy, unfortunately, can’t be present. I later find him in the intensive care unit of a hospital on the Wirral, where he has been taken with acute pneumonia. A few weeks later he is dead. The redoubtable, 62 year-old latecomer to the world of art had been plagued with illness for some time, but harboured mixed feelings about his afflictions. It was after a near-fatal stroke, 11 years ago, that he discovered – to no one’s greater surprise than his own – that he could paint.

And paint not just as an occasional pleasure, but with a furious, obsessive exactness that took over his life and produced a stream of acclaimed works. Psychologists, who looked at his case, considered him to be one of the world’s foremost examples of “sudden savant syndrome” – a rare, barely-understood phenomenon whereby damage to the brain somehow unlocks a hidden talent.

There are so few confirmed cases — perhaps 30 in the world – that plausible explanations are hard to come by. Take Orlando Serrell, a 44-year-old from Virginia who was hit on the head by a baseball as a boy, and later found he could do complicated calculations and remember the precise weather conditions of any given day of the year.

Or Tony Cicoria. An orthopaedic surgeon from New York State, Dr Cicoria was struck by lightning in 1994 as he chatted to his mother from an outdoor telephone booth. Within weeks he became obsessed with classical piano music and a few years later — despite no previous interest in music beyond listening to rock songs – he made his public debut as a pianist and composer in a solo recital.

What is the explanation for all this? And does it – as some scientists now believe – hold the promise of unleashing the inner talents of everyone?

“What appears to happen,” says Darold Treffert, a consultant psychiatrist from Wisconsin who has studied such cases for 40 years, “is that after severe trauma the brain rewires itself. When damage occurs in one part of the brain it may be that other parts step in to compensate and in doing so release dormant potential which manifests itself as abilities that weren’t there – or weren’t known about – before.”

McHugh’s upbringing wasn’t the kind that nurtured an appreciation of arts and high culture. One of 12 children born into a working-class family, he was in regular trouble as a young man, fell into drug use, served time in prison, and eventually made a career of sorts as a builder and odd-job man. No one would have thought that his appreciation of art went beyond the tattoos on his forearms.

But in 2001 Tommy suffered a severe stroke, with haemorrhaging on both sides of his brain. When he returned home he had no idea who he was. The face in the mirror was one he didn’t recognise. The woman who said she was his wife was a stranger. He found he could only speak in an elaborate form of rhyme.

Then, as he groped around in a world he no longer knew, the emptiness was replaced by a huge, urgent creative rush. He began painting and hasn’t stopped. He covered the walls, the doors and the ceilings of his house in vivid, intricate patterns and when he ran out of space, he re-covered what he had already painted. “It was as though a balloon had popped,” he told me, propped up in a bed in Arrow Park Hospital. “I could see the beauty of the world. I knew who I was. The man I used to be had gone forever. I don’t even know who he was.” Tommy produced not only paintings, but sculptures and collages, and his rhymes began to fashion themselves into poetry.

Dr Mark Lythgoe, a neurologist at University College London, who has studied the McHugh case, says: “It may be that the brain damage that Tommy sustained has caused disinhibition of brain pathways, allowing his creativity to surface. Perhaps whatever was keeping his artistic talents hidden or dormant has been damaged just enough to allow them to pour through.”

Tommy himself spoke like a born-again convert, desperate for others to hear the Good News. “This isn’t something special to me,” he said. “This is inside everyone, but they are too frightened to let it out. Then something happens to you and it comes out anyway.”

The results are sometimes bizarre. Last year, Chris Birch, a 19-stone rugby player from South Wales, told how he suffered a stroke and woke up gay. The 26-year-old proceeded to ditch his girlfriend, pack in his job and retrain as a hairdresser. Other patients have started speaking in foreign accents. But researchers are most interested in those who wake up with savant-type abilities.

In 2003, Bruce Miller, a professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco, discovered that some patients suffering from a degenerative brain disorder called frontotemporal dementia (FTD), developed sudden and remarkable artistic talents as their conditions progressed. One of the cases he studied involved Anne Adams, a renowned Canadian biologist, who – as FTD gnawed at the cognitive networks of her brain – lost the power of speech, but gained extraordinary artistic skills. “This shows how plastic our brain is,” explained Miller in a report published in the magazine Brain four years ago. “If you turn off the language circuits, you may have increased activities in other areas.”

Elsewhere, scientists are now investigating whether it’s possible to replicate this change without, of course, damaging the patient. Dr Allan Snyder, of the University of Sydney, has created a machine called the Medronic MagPro which attempts temporarily to replicate the deterioration caused by FTD, by sending precise electromagnetic pulses into the frontal lobes of the brain. Snyder calls it “a creativity amplification machine”.

One guinea pig who underwent Snyder’s tests was asked to draw a sequence of pictures of cats. He reported: “Two minutes after I started the first drawing, I was instructed to try again. After another two minutes I tried a third cat, and then in due course a fourth. Then the experiment was over, and the electrodes were removed. I looked down at my work. The first felines were boxy and stiffly unconvincing, but after I had been subjected to about 10 minutes of transcranial magnetic stimulation, their tails had grown more vibrant; their faces were personable and convincing.” Other patients, says Snyder, have experienced enhanced abilities in memory, visual skills and mathematical calculation.

Savants are usually defined as people – predominantly men – who possess unusual powers of memory, calculation or artistic skill in conjunction with severe mental deficiencies. The condition presents in men much more often than in women because, according to some scientists, high levels of testosterone in the male foetus cause damage to the left hemisphere of the brain. Treffert describes savant abilities as “deep but narrow”, and many struggle with the wider challenges of life. Sudden savant syndrome appears to add a further dimension to the phenomenon, as most have had relatively normal lives until the savantism hits them.

If there is a Leonardo lurking in all of us, or a Mozart writing silent scores in our heads, it raises one big, so far unanswered question: where does such talent come from? How can someone such as Cicoria, who had undergone no musical training or demonstrated any previous hint of talent, suddenly start composing sonatas and concertos?

The consensus-shattering answer may lie in genetics. “The only way this can be explained,” says Treffert, “is through the genetic transmission of knowledge. We know this is the case in the animal kingdom; creatures manage incredible feats of navigation [without anyone] teaching them how to do it. Someone in the family of a Tommy McHugh must have had these abilities.” This theory vastly expands existing assumptions of what human DNA can do. But even if it can be proved, it’s hard to explain the astonishing capabilities of men like Orlando Serrell.

Serrell is currently out of work, having recently lost his job as a caretaker in Newport News, Virginia. He tells me he had hoped his abilities would open up opportunities, possibly with the FBI or even as a stage novelty act, but after an initial burst of interest, nothing has developed.

“Some people, you know, they lose consciousness, go into a coma, things like that, and when they wake up, they find they are different people,” he says. “But it wasn’t like that with me. I was playing in the park, and someone threw [a] baseball and it hit me at the front of the head, but I wasn’t knocked out. I just lay down and my head hurt bad, but I got up and carried on the game, and it was only about a month later that I found I could do this stuff.”

What Serrell can do is instantaneously put a day to any date since the accident and recall the weather, where he was and what he was doing. Doctors who have studied him say this ability is vastly beyond the capacity of normal human memory. Nothing known to science explains it, and it is hard to see how genetics could.

“I’m the same guy,” he says. “I don’t feel different in any other way. I don’t even think of myself as a savant, I just feel I have a gift that I found by accident. Beyond that I can’t explain it.” Nor, adequately, can Cicoria.

A self-described “rock-and-roll kind of guy”, Cicoria, whose story was recounted in the neurologist Oliver Sacks’s 2007 book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, recovered from the physical effects of the lightning strike but soon began to feel strange activity in his brain: “like it was one of those old-fashioned TV sets that picked up interference, and you had to whack it to get a good picture.”

What came out of the fuzz and crackle was a sudden desire for the finest classical piano music. “I might be a respectable physician on the outside, but inside I’m a biker dude,” he says. “I’d had a couple of music lessons when I was a kid, but that was all. I couldn’t understand why I wanted to hear this stuff. So I went to the music store, and bought some CDs, and then I felt that wasn’t enough and I wanted to play it for myself, so I bought the sheet music and then a piano, and began to learn how to play.

“Then, as I played, other music started coming through in my head, and I understood that I needed to write it down.” Today, Dr Cicoria, 60, is an accomplished composer and pianist who has given dozens of well-received recitals. “Exactly what happened to me, I’ll never know,” he says, “but I’m glad it did.” This is how it tends to be in the world of the savants. Brilliance and talent abound, but no one can quite explain what is going on.

This article also appeared in SEVEN magazine, free with the Sunday Telegraph. Follow us on Twitter @TelegraphSeven


“Biohackers” or “DIY Biologists”, Teams have come together to create the world’s first “public BioBrick”

Amateur scientists build Lego-style synthetic BioBricks in public lab

By  Joel Winston 24 September 12


While some may believe that science is better left to scientists, hundreds of amateur biologists around the world have been setting-up  makeshift biology labs in their homes, garages and community centres. Some of these “biohackers” or “DIY biologists” have political motivations to open up science for all, a few attempt to address an absence of research in rare genetic diseases, some are curious and have a desire to learn, while others are taking part just for the sheer fun of it all.

Although “hacking” can carry negative connotations, it is clear that they are not the pipette-wielding revolutionaries they may sound like, and “hacking” is adopted more in the sense of playfully finding innovative and resourceful ways to build and modify. Groups have already developed novel lab equipment hacks including converting webcams into microscopes, building centrifuges out of drills and incubators out of picnic coolers. But despite such seemingly innocent hobbyist activities, biology as a science is also becoming more “hackable”, thanks to the field of synthetic biology. This raises a number of ethical and safety issues, especially if the public were able to access the technology.

Based on principles from engineering, synthetic biology makes use of “BioBricks”, genetic sequences which have been standardised like electronic components. These Lego-like BioBricks have various functions and can be plugged into each other with ease to create entirely new biological systems in microorganisms. These techniques can be used, for example, to transform bacteria into machines for sensing and degrading pollutants. And every year, university teams compete in an international competition, iGEM, based at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to develop new BioBricks to be added to their registry.

While the potential of the technology has already been demonstrated by professional scientists, what if biohackers or other members of the public were also able to access these tools? Now, for the first time, the University College London (UCL) iGEM team and the London Biohacking group are exploring these issues to encourage public debate.

The teams have come together to create the world’s first “public BioBrick”, built partly in a university lab, and partly in a public lab. Working with UCL over the last few months, the biohackers chose to create a BioBrick comprised of two genes — one for degrading mercury, a toxic water pollutant, and another for making antifreeze compounds. If this BioBrick was then inserted into a bacterial cell, not only would the cell take on a new function of degrading mercury in its environment, but the antifreeze would also help it survive in ice-cold waters.

“This was a really exciting experience,” says UCL iGEM team leader, Philipp Boeing. “It was amazing to find a group that was evidently so passionate about the subject they were studying, but who approached it in such a different way. I think this was a really novel discovery for most of us.”

To build the biobrick, the biohackers used their public lab at the London Hackspace to extract DNA from marine bacteria, which naturally have these two genes. Then using their thermal cycler (a machine for heating and cooling solutions of DNA), they replicated sufficient copies of the genes to ensure successful BioBrick manufacture.

In order to comply with UK regulations, the second stage of genetic modification was carried out in UCL’s lab. The biohackers took the two genes they had already isolated, and connected them to the standardised BioBrick backbone via a chemical process called ligation, to form the final “public BioBrick”.

“It was great to see what we do in a wider context, and to learn from professionals,” says one of the London biohackers. “Because most of the outside knowledge we use comes from books or the internet, it was good to get more face to face contact, and experience new lab techniques.”

Despite having created a new BioBrick that could be used in potential interventions for dealing with mercury pollution, due to iGEM Registry rules on non-professional institutions, the biohackers will not be allowed to access their own BioBrick in the future. The UCL team therefore hope this project will raise awareness of issues of public access to the iGEM Registry, and they are already planning further projects.

“I’ve been really inspired by our collaboration,” continues Philipp Boeing. “I think it’s definitely time to bring DIYbio in London to the next level. My favourite idea involves a community lab that’s certified for genetic modification. This should be a public place for molecular biology, and a space to carry out projects in a safe environment.”

It is this issue of safety that concerns many of the critics of biohacking, who fear improper lab protocols and the potential release of harmful genetically modified organisms. However, many biohackers argue that these concerns are significantly overstated. The organisation, DIYbio.org, maintains online biosafety resources for amateur biologists, and is also involved in an annual conference with the FBI’s bioterrorism unit to discuss safety and law enforcement. And many biohacking groups, for example, those in the UK, are already restricted in their activities due to licensing rules.

However, on safety issues, there is also a feeling among some biohackers that there may be no more of a reason to trust professional institutions to act responsibly with new technologies than members of the public.

“There are no biohackers I have heard of that could generate an environmental catastrophe or lead a bioterrorist attack,” says a London Biohacking member, “whereas there are many professional organisations, with actions dictated by political or financial interests, that have demonstrated themselves to be very successful at bringing such catastrophes”.

Some also argue that focusing on issues of biosafety detracts from realising the contributions to science that can be made by the public. So while biohacking may still be a long way off from anything that could be defined as a major scientific breakthrough, projects like the “public BioBrick” are already teasing us with the possibilities that can be achieved through biohacking, and greater public involvement in science in general.

The UCL and London Biohacking teams will be discussing and exhibiting their “public BioBrick” with a live genetic isolation and visualisation experiment at London’s Grant Museum of Zoology on Monday 24 September, 7 to 8.30pm


Nudge or Think: What works best for our society?

If approached in the right way, citizens are willing to change their behaviour and do more to help themselves and others, according to research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

21 September 2012

If approached in the right way, citizens are willing to change their behaviour and do more to help themselves and others, according to research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The project, carried out jointly at the universities of Manchester and Southampton, experimented with different intervention techniques which encourage citizen participation and explored people’s motivations for community involvement.

The researchers focused on comparing the effectiveness of ‘nudge’ techniques, where people are offered incentives to change their behaviour, and ‘think’ techniques, which takes a planned approach where people are given information, the opportunity to discuss and debate a subject, and then opportunity to act. Overall, they found that while the nudge interventions yielded better results, these were not always sustained in the long term.

Individuals responded well to nudge techniques such as doorstep canvassing, receiving feedback on their actions and to public recognition of their contribution. For example, in a recycling experiment, there was a ten per cent increase in household recycling as a result of doorstep canvassing – a nudge technique. Unfortunately, this effect did not last and after three months the increase was just four per cent.

In another experiment people were asked to pledge used books to their local library. When the donors were told that their names would be made public, another nudge technique, donations went up by 22 per cent.

The ‘think’ technique experiments, though less successful, offered unexpected results. On-line debate forums where people were given information on a topic and the opportunity to discuss it resulted in modest changes in their policy positions. However, this approach failed to encourage participation among people that were not already politically engaged.

Another experiment, using both techniques, attempted to encourage students to add their names to the organ donor register. Dividing students into three groups the researchers found that the group given an information booklet on organ donation experienced a 34 per cent increase in registrations; the placebo group given information on swine flu recorded a 30 per cent increase in registrations; but the group given the information on organ donation and time to discuss it achieved a 15 per cent increase in registrations.

“The think experiments gave us more modest results, but it does not mean that Governments should dismiss this approach,” argues Professor John. “Face-to-face techniques, more so than on-line, offer the potential for a richer and more complex platform for discussion and participation.”

The researchers also identified that people with positive feelings about their neighbourhood, but with a distrust of government institutions, are more likely to get involved in their local area.

“The findings are very positive and supports the idea that a local approach using nudge and think techniques can lead to citizens getting involved in collective neighbourhood activities,” states Professor John. “In order to sustain any actions the Government has to adopt a more experimental culture, using local authorities and groups as well. Based on our findings we suggest that a mixture of nudge and think techniques combined with opportunity for positive two-way feedback – government to citizen and citizen to government – is needed.”

For further information contact:

ESRC Press Office:

Notes for editors

  1. This release is based on the findings from ‘Rediscovering the Civic and Achieving Better Outcomes in Public Policy‘, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.  The research was conducted jointly by teams at the University of Manchester and the University of Southampton. Professor Peter John who led the research was based at the University of Manchester and is now at University College London.  Other co-investigators include Professor Gerry Stoker and Professor Graham Smith from University of Southampton.
  2. The team carried out a range of research developing innovative experiments on charitable giving, recycling, volunteering, and people deliberating controversial topics online. They used randomised control trials and other experiments to get robust evidence about ways to change civic behaviour. To understand what causes people to participate in civic activities they also conducted secondary data analysis of the 2005 English Citizenship Survey.
  3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at www.esrc.ac.uk
  4. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peers review. This research has been graded as outstanding

One in a hundred children are ‘psychopathic’, warn researchers – and they say there is nothing parents can do to control them

  • Scientists say affected children lie, cheat,  manipulate and commit acts of remorseless cruelty
  • Traditional punishments have no effect on  their behaviour

By Daily Mail Reporter

PUBLISHED:11:49 EST, 30  August 2012| UPDATED:15:22 EST, 31 August 2012


Around 1 per cent of children could be  inherently psychopathic, with parents unable to turn around their behaviour,  according to researchers.

Up until now, children who lie, manipulate  and commit acts of cruelty without remorse were thought to be the product of  poor parenting.

But psychologists at University College  London said two studies which they carried out showed such traits are largely  genetic.

Researchers found that one in 100 British children display signs of psychopathic behaviour, and that normal parenting methods rarely work because the children an incapable of empathyResearchers found that one in 100 British children  display signs of psychopathic behaviour, and that normal parenting methods  rarely work because the children an incapable of empathy

It means typical punishments such as the  ‘naughty step’ are unlikely to be effective.

The theme is explored in bestselling  novel  We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, which is about a  mother  struggling to come to terms with her psychopathic, killer son.

Lead researcher Professor Essi Viding said  the novel was a good portrayal of a child psychopath and how their behaviour  cannot be blamed on parents.

She said: ‘Yes, the mother was not a  perfect  mother. But this mother managed to bring up one child [Kevin’s  sister] who was  perfectly well-integrated and typical, and another child who was extremely,  extremely troublesome.’

The researchers said such children,  which  they describe as ‘callous-unemotional’, form a distinct sub-group of badly  behaved youngsters.

They predicted between a quarter and  half of  children with conduct problems could fall into this category,  equating to  around 1 per cent of all children in the UK.

The researchers also warn that traditional parenting methods to discipline children such as the naughty step are unlikely to workThe researchers also warn that traditional parenting  methods to discipline children such as the naughty step are unlikely to work

Professor Viding said that although  children  who had anti-social behavioural tendencies were more likely to  be the product  of poor parenting, this was not the case for children  with psychopathic  tendencies.

She said: ‘For the group which has  callous-unemotional traits, there’s a strong genetic vulnerability.

‘This does not mean these children are born  anti-social or are destined to become anti-social.

‘But in the same way that some of us  are  more susceptible to heart disease, these children are people who are more  vulnerable to environmental influences that trigger the  anti-social  outcome.’

However, Professor Viding, who will  present  her findings at the British Science Festival in Aberdeen next  week, said there  is some evidence that psychopathic children respond to  ‘warm parenting’.

This might mean giving children what they  want in return for good behaviour, even against the parents’ better  judgment.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2195917/One-children-psychopathic-warn-researchers–say-parents-control-them.html#ixzz25CuRoc1U

Want to live longer? Ditch the diet, cancel your gym session – just eat less ( Dangerous Misinformation )

Want to live longer? Ditch the diet, cancel your gym session – just eat  less

By Liz Thomas

PUBLISHED:19:44 EST, 30 July  2012 | UPDATED:03:18  EST, 31 July 2012

Dr Michael Mosley said he did not believe it was  necessary to eat three meals a day

Forget exercise, fad diets or so-called  miracle pills – if you want to live longer simply eat less, a leading scientist  has claimed.

Dr Michael Mosley, a presenter on BBC science  show Horizon, said ongoing research suggested that a high metabolic rate – how  much energy the body uses for normal body functions – is a risk factor for  earlier mortality.

And he revealed that communities in Japan and  the U.S. which  follow strict, low-calorie diets  appear to have a  lifespan longer than the global average.

The 55-year-old said of calorie restriction  diets, which are often as low as 600 calories a day: ‘The bottom line is that it  is the only thing that’s ever really been shown to prolong life.

‘Ultimately, ageing is a product of a high  metabolic rate, which in turn increases the number of free radicals we consume.

‘If you stress the body out by restricting  calories or fasting, this seems to cause it to adapt and slow the metabolism  down. It’s a version of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.’

Dr Mosley said he did not believe it was  necessary to eat three meals a day because ‘what we think of as hunger is mainly  habit’.

In a new Horizon programme, he also suggests  that intermittent fasting could offer the same benefits as calorie restriction  by reducing the growth of hormone IGF-1.

While the hormone maintains and repairs  tissue, high levels have been shown to contribute towards cancer and ageing.

New approach: Forget exercise, fad diets or so-called miracle pills ¿ if you want to live longer simply eat less, a leading scientist has claimedNew approach: Forget exercise, fad diets or so-called  miracle pills – if you want to live longer simply eat less, a leading scientist  has claimed

His comments, made to the Radio Times, come  after the Institute of Health Ageing at University College London suggested  eating 40 per cent less could extend a person’s life by 20 years.

A researcher said: ‘If you reduce the diet of  a rat by 40 per cent it will live for 20 per cent longer. So we would be talking  20 years of human life.

‘This has shown on all sorts of organisms,  even labradors.’

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2181370/Want-live-longer-Ditch-diet-cancel-gym-session–just-eat-less.html#ixzz22oo7jvyN

* Why the Info is Wrong and Evil

It is either the Doctor being Misquoted, or the Reporter Not understanding. Many understand it is the type of nutrition being consumed, not just blind caloric intake. Many foods contain antioxidants that squelch free radicals. At 600 Calories a day, there is no way you can maintain adequate vitamin/mineral intake just from food. You would eventually succumb to malnutrition

Eating less may not extend life, Jan. 13 3009 in advance of print publication in the Journal of Nutrition

New clue into how diet and exercise enhance longevity, July 20, 2007, issue of the journal Science

Even occasional exercise can extend life for older people,  Jul 2004  Journal of Preventive Medicine

Low-level exercise delays heart failure, markedly extends lives, even with hypertension, 2005 November edition of the American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology

Good news: Light and moderate physical activity reduces the risk of early death, Aug 2010  International Journal of Epidemiology

Thats just off the top of my head

Ads for SSRI antidepressants are misleading, say researchers

Consumer ads for a class of antidepressants called SSRIs often claim that depression is due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, and that SSRIs correct this imbalance, but these claims are not supported by scientific evidence, say researchers in PLoS Medicine.

Although scientists in the 1960s suggested that depression may be linked to low brain levels of the chemical serotonin (the so-called “serotonin hypothesis”), contemporary research has failed to confirm the hypothesis, they say.

The researchers–Jeffrey Lacasse, a doctoral candidate at Florida State University and Dr. Jonathan Leo, a neuroanatomy professor at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine–studied US consumer advertisements for SSRIs from print, television, and the Internet.  They found widespread claims that SSRIs restore the serotonin balance of the brain. “Yet there is no such thing as a scientifically established correct ‘balance’ of serotonin,” the authors say.

According to Lacasse and Leo, in the scientific literature it is openly admitted that the serotonin hypothesis remains unconfirmed and that there is “a growing body of medical literature casting doubt on the serotonin hypothesis,” which is not reflected in the consumer ads.

For instance, the widely televised animated Zoloft (setraline) commercials have dramatized a serotonin imbalance and stated, “Prescription Zoloft works to correct this imbalance.” Advertisements for other SSRIs, such as Prozac (fluoxetine), Paxil (paroxetine), and Lexapro (escitalopram), have made similar claims.

In the US, the FDA is responsible for regulating consumer advertisements, and requires that they be based on scientific evidence. Yet, according to Lacasse and Leo, the mismatch between the scientific literature and the SSRI advertisements is “remarkable, and possibly unparalleled.”

And while the Irish equivalent of the FDA, the Irish Medicines Board, recently banned GlaxoSmithKline from claiming in their patient information leaflets that paroxetine (Paxil) corrects a chemical imbalance, the FDA has never taken any similar action on this issue.

Commenting on Lacasse and Leo’s work, Professor David Healy of the North Wales Department of Psychological Medicine, said: “The serotonin theory of depression is comparable to the masturbatory theory of insanity.  Both have been depletion theories, both have survived in spite of the evidence, both contain an implicit message as to what people ought to do.  In the case of these myths, the key question is whose interests are being served by a widespread promulgation of such views rather than how do we test this theory.”

Dr Joanna Moncrieff, Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry at University College London, said: “It is high time that it was stated clearly that the serotonin imbalance theory of depression is not supported by the scientific evidence or by expert opinion.  Through misleading publicity the pharmaceutical industry has helped to ensure that most of the general public is unaware of this.”