Friday, April 26, 2013

big sugar tactics echoed big tobacco tactics...,

cbcnews |  When Cristin Couzens went on the hunt for evidence that Big Sugar had manipulated public opinion, she had no idea what she was doing. She was a dentist, not an investigative reporter. But she couldn't let go of the nagging suspicion that something was amiss.

Her obsession started in an unlikely place, at a dental conference in Seattle in 2007 about diabetes and gum disease. When one speaker listed foods to avoid, there was no mention of sugar. "I thought this was very strange," Couzens said. And when a second speaker suggested sugary drinks were a healthy choice, she chased him down at the end of the conference to make sure she'd heard him correctly. "How could you possibly recommend sweet tea as a healthy drink?" she asked the speaker, who paused just long enough to say, "There is no evidence that links sugar to chronic disease," before he bolted out the door.

"I was so shocked by that statement," she said, "I felt obligated to do a little bit of research, thinking perhaps the sugar industry had somehow had an influence over the lack of advice to limit sugar intake to prevent and control diabetes. That's what set me off."

She quit her job, exhausted her savings and spent 15 months scouring library archives. Then one day she found what she was looking for, in a cardboard box at the Colorado State University archives.

"The first folder that I opened jumped right out at me," she said. "It was on the Sugar Association letterhead which is the trade association in Washington for cane and beet sugar producers. And the word "confidential" was right under the letterhead. So the first document I saw was a confidential Sugar Association memo talking about their PR strategies in the 70s."

What Couzens found was something food industry critics have been seeking for years — documents suggesting that the sugar industry used Big Tobacco tactics to deflect growing concern over the health effects of sugar.

"So I had lists of their board reports, their financial statements, I had names of their scientific consultants, I had a list of research projects they funded, and I had these memos where they were describing how their PR men should handle conflict of interest questions from the press," she said.

The documents survived in the Colorado University Library Archives only because they helped explain a photograph of three men and a trophy. When the Great West Sugar Company went out of business in the 1980s, someone put the files in a box so that librarians would know who the men were and why they were being honored. So who were they?

"That was a picture of sugar industry executives being awarded the Silver Anvil, which is like the Oscars of the PR world," Couzens said. In the 1976 photo, the president of the Sugar Association and its director of public relations smile as they pose with their prize for their successful campaign "forging public opinion," in the face of mounting consumer and government concern over the health risks of sugar.

"It's a little bit shocking to me that an industry would be rewarded for manipulating scientific evidence," Couzens said. "At the time the award was given in 1976, there was a controversy. Many people thought sugar was harmful, the sugar industry wanted to turn public opinion toward thinking sugar was safe so they forged public opinion on how the public viewed the effects of sugar," she said.  Fist tap Dale.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

what have 4000 years of hallucinations taught us?

psychologytoday | About sixty years ago the scientist C.H.W. Horne wrote that "it is remarkable that one characteristic which seems to separate man from the allegedly lower animals is a recurring desire to escape from reality."  He was referring to the widespread use of hallucinogens by young people during the middle of the last century.  What is even more remarkable, in my opinion, is how long humans have been documenting their interest in the use of hallucinogens. Cultural and religious rituals developed around the use of these hallucinogens probably as soon as they were discovered in the various plants and fungi that were present in their environment.  

Imagine that the year is 2000 BCE (before the current era) and as you are foraging for something safe to eat you discover a small yellowish mushroom that would one day be called Psilocybe mexicana. We now realize that this mushroom contains a hallucinogen called psilocybin.  Indeed, psilocybin would ultimately be discovered in at least 75 different species of mushrooms, so there was a good chance that someone, one day would have stumbled onto a mushroom containing it. Regardless, today is your lucky day - you discovered it first.

After eating this mushroom you rather quickly developed a stomach ache that lasted for about thirty minutes and then something truly mystical started to happen.  You began seeing things that you had never seen before, images that could only be due to the intervention of a god (or goddess, depending upon your local traditions).  You began sharing your collection of mushrooms with others and everyone marveled at their amazing and quite mystical visual experiences. Ultimately, the use of psilocybin-containing mushrooms in the Central and South America became an integral part of many religious rituals.  The mushroom was worshiped and was given the name Teonanacatl, which is thought to mean "god's flesh" or "sacred mushroom."  Using this sacred mushroom became an important milestone in every person's religious path to the spirit world.  Mushroom art and sculptures as well as numerous images on stones clearly designate the important role played by this mushroom in the local religions. When the Spaniard Francisco Hernandez invaded in the 1570s he documented the use of these mushrooms and eventually added them to their own list of medicinal herbs.

The stone carvings provide some insight into the effects that the mushrooms produced in the minds of these primitive peoples.  Some of these carvings are shown above.  You can imagine the challenge facing someone 4000 years ago who wished to represent to others what they experienced while visiting their mushroom-inspired spirit world.  What if your only tools for representing this experience were stones and bones?
Even today people find it difficult to describe their personal experiences with hallucinogens. Consider this interesting question: Did hallucinogens produced qualitatively different experiences in people living 4000 years ago as compared to people alive today?  In 1928 the scientist Heinrich Kluver attempted to answer this question. He interviewed people who had used hallucinogenic mushrooms as well as many other naturally-occurring hallucinogens. He discovered that these drugs all produce a surprisingly similar consensus of experiences that consistently included seeing geometric images that were accompanied by highly altered emotions.  Although the specific colors reported varied, participants consistently reported brightness intensification. Moreover, the apparent size and design of the geometrical shapes, as well as their degree of symmetry, were strikingly similar from participant to participant.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

beer tastes intoxicating...,

thescientist | It seems that beer’s flavor, not just its alcohol content, prompts us to keep drinking—and our risk of alcoholism may enhance this urge, according to new research published today (April 15) in Neuropsychopharmacology. Researchers found downing a swig of beer—too tiny to produce intoxication—prompted release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the reward center of men’s brains, especially in men with close relatives who suffer from alcoholism. The research suggests that stronger dopamine responses to alcohol cues may be one mechanism underlying increased alcoholism risk.

“It’s a very nice finding that contributes to our understanding of how dopamine contributes to addictive urges,” said Kent Berridge, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan who was not involved in the research. The brain chemistry of addiction and craving is still being untangled, but it’s long been known that dopamine is involved—though it’s not always clear how, said Berridge. In this case, the research suggests that “dopamine is making taste a stronger incentive, it makes [the beer taste] more tempting.”

Both animal and human studies have shown that drug-related cues, independent of the intoxicating effect of the drug itself, stimulate activity in the brain’s reward centers, explained David Kareken, a neuroscientist at the Indiana Alcohol Research Center and Indiana University School of Medicine, who led the research. However, no one had looked at whether the taste of beer—a cue that can’t be avoided—stimulates humans to release dopamine, a key neurotransmitter used in the reward center.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

red meat, bacteria, heart disease...,

NYTimes | It was breakfast time and the people participating in a study of red meat and its consequences had hot, sizzling sirloin steaks plopped down in front of them. The researcher himself bought a George Foreman grill for the occasion, and the nurse assisting him did the cooking. 

For the sake of science, these six men and women ate every last juicy bite of the 8-ounce steaks. Then they waited to have their blood drawn. 

Dr. Stanley Hazen of the Cleveland Clinic, who led the study, and his colleagues had accumulated evidence for a surprising new explanation of why red meat may contribute to heart disease. And they were testing it with this early morning experiment. 

The researchers had come to believe that what damaged hearts was not just the thick edge of fat on steaks, or the delectable marbling of their tender interiors. In fact, these scientists suspected that saturated fat and cholesterol made only a minor contribution to the increased amount of heart disease seen in red-meat eaters. The real culprit, they proposed, was a little-studied chemical that is burped out by bacteria in the intestines after people eat red meat. It is quickly converted by the liver into yet another little-studied chemical called TMAO that gets into the blood and increases the risk of heart disease. 

That, at least, was the theory. So the question that morning was: Would a burst of TMAO show up in people’s blood after they ate steak? And would the same thing happen to a vegan who had not eaten meat for at least a year and who consumed the same meal? 

The answers were: yes, there was a TMAO burst in the five meat eaters; and no, the vegan did not have it. And TMAO levels turned out to predict heart attack risk in humans, the researchers found. The researchers also found that TMAO actually caused heart disease in mice. Additional studies with 23 vegetarians and vegans and 51 meat eaters showed that meat eaters normally had more TMAO in their blood and that they, unlike those who spurned meat, readily made TMAO after swallowing pills with carnitine. 

“It’s really a beautiful combination of mouse studies and human studies to tell a story I find quite plausible,” said Dr. Daniel J. Rader, a heart disease researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who was not involved in the research. 

Researchers say the work could lead to new treatments for heart disease — perhaps even an antibiotic to specifically wipe out the bacterial culprit — and also to a new way to assess heart disease risk by looking for TMAO in the blood. 

Of course, critical questions remain. Would people reduce their heart attack risk if they lowered their blood TMAO levels? An association between TMAO levels in the blood and heart disease risk does not necessarily mean that one causes the other. And which gut bacteria in particular are the culprits?
There also are questions about the safety of supplements, like energy drinks and those used in body building. Such supplements often contain carnitine, a substance found mostly in red meat.