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DNA, Behavior and Food
Jamais Cascio, 17 Nov 05

labrat.jpgWe're all familiar with the ways in which the chemicals in food can change our behavior, sometimes dramatically (as anyone who has been around me when I'm having a mid-day low blood sugar crash can tell you). But it turns out that ingested chemicals in the bloodstream can do more than change transient behavior -- they can change the way our DNA is expressed.

That's the finding of Drs. Moshe Szyf, Michael Meaney and colleagues at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, speaking at this week's Environmental Epigenomics conference. They found that injecting L-methionine, a common amino acid and food supplement, into the brains of lab rats, could turn well-adjusted rats into easily-stressed, shy rats, by causing the same kinds of changes to DNA expression in the brain as result from rats that are not properly groomed and cared for by their mothers:

Though the experiment impaired well-adjusted animals, the opposite should be possible, and Szyf has already shown that a chemical called TSA that is designed to strip away methyl groups can turn a badly raised rat into a more normal one.
No one is envisaging injecting supplements into people's brains, but Szyf says his study shows how important subtle nutrients and supplements can be. "Food has a dramatic effect," he says. "But it can go both ways," he cautions. Methionine, for instance, the supplement he used to make healthy rats stressed, is widely available in capsule form online or in health-food stores - and the molecules are small enough to get into the brain via the bloodstream.

The overarching concept is that there appear to be ways to change the expression of DNA in the brain through the introduction of certain chemicals into the blood. This, in turn, could result in new treatments for genetic neurological diseases such as Huntington's, some forms of mental illness, and a variety of cancers.

Further out -- but now more conceivable -- would be food additives that could change on an ongoing basis certain kinds of behavioral traits. They'd be subject to all sorts of regulation and testing (one would hope), but the effects should, in principle, be readily reversed. It would certainly open up new markets for food companies.

Tired of being depressed? Someday you might be told to eat a McProzac (with cheese).

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Comments

This sounds like a very "Brave New World" sort of thing to me. I can understand that this would be something useful for mental illness, but I would draw the line at depression. Even though depression is not a highly sought after state, its still apart of the human expierence. So why limit the spectrum of that experience?

In addition I believe more people need to think about just what these chemical therapies are doing. For instance, let's say someone is depressed based on past experiences that have impacted them negatively. They take a certain drug, or in this case receive a dose of a specific amino acid and they no longer feel depressed, BUT are they actually happy? Do such therapies take care of the symptom or the cause? If you're of the materialist reductionist sort, you would say that it remedies the later. However, seeing as how one's mental/emotional state can change as a result of intensive contemplation and conversation (thinking and expressing thought), I would say that only the former is remedied. And if only symptoms are being treated, how is someone supposed to get better?


Posted by: Justin Minich on 17 Nov 05

I really don't want this to get into a thrash about depression, since that's not the subject of the post (and the "McProzac" line was really only to refer to a behavior-changing med that most people would recognize). I will say that I know from direct family experience that not all depression can be considered to be a result of environment or reaction to circumstances; some depressions -- clearly not all, probably nowhere close to a majority -- have a basis in brain chemistry patterns.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 17 Nov 05

So doctors and pharmacists could look at designer drugs for their patient's precise genetics- and also have to take into account the food they eat and how that changes the expression of those genes?

It seems like science-fiction, and so far out when arguably more than 90% of humanity still doesn't have anything resembling optimal nutrition to avoid common killers.


Posted by: Daniel Haran on 17 Nov 05

Nature and Nurture in one tidy^H^H^H^H hideously complex package!

The more we look into stuff like this, the more it becomes apparent that tolerance for childhood poverty and deprivation is inexcusable. Not just morally wrong, but unthinkable to anyone who values a civil society.

It is almost as though wretchedness and poverty are a self-sustaining state. Deprive a kid of care and proper nutrition, and he grows up with a biochemical make up that lends itself to a suspicious and ornery personality that in turn makes it less likely he'll get an education, a well-paying job, and have the patience required to be a fit parent.

Stefan


Posted by: Stefan Jones on 17 Nov 05

This doesn't sound particularly science-fiction-like to me, rather it echoes some personal experience.

Going through university, I knew a young woman who suffered from a genetic condition so rare that only she and her cousins had it. I never got a satisfactory explanation of it, but it had to do with brain chemistry, precluded her from being able regulate adrenalin, and included symptoms such as crushing headaches, delusion, depression, wild mood swings and so on.

Her cousin suicided, and the other died early, leaving her with a prognosis of maybe reaching 30 if she was lucky, and the only known person in the world with her condition. Without any other benchmarks or knowledge, doctors tried drug after drug on her, often with appalling results.

One of the things she worked out for herself was how food affected her. For example, red food colouring paralysed her, and green food colouring brought on an instant positive mood. Truly.

This personal story would seem to correlate directly with this study's findings, given her condition was believed to be genetic.


Posted by: imogen on 17 Nov 05

They found that injecting L-methionine, a common amino acid and food supplement, into the brains of lab rats, could turn well-adjusted rats into easily-stressed, shy rats

Hmm. I think I'd be pretty stressed-out if someone injected anything into my brain. Not saying that the research is wrong or anything, just saying, you know, if they were testing the effect of food... well, people don't exactly inject food into their brains.


Posted by: David Lucas on 17 Nov 05

Please, let's not inject rats' brains with anything. Let's change the world so there are no animal experiments.


Posted by: JN on 18 Nov 05

Well it would be nice if software models of human or animal brains, cell tissues, bodies and organs were good enough to do away with drug testing in animals but, we're not quite there yet. Scientists are working on multiple fronts to invent ways to test drugs and other medicines without animals if only to improve speed, efficiency and reduce expense--never mind squeamishness or morality.

But until then, some animal testing, as long as we are humane as possible, is necessary--better mice than people.

Anyway, I just read on Slash that scientists have bred knockout mice that, lacking the protein stathmin, appear to have a significant lack of caution. They become foolhardy.


Posted by: Pace Arko on 18 Nov 05



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