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The study included more than 500 boys in Pittsburgh who were assessed each year from first-grade until they were 20 years old, with another follow-up four to five years later.
When they were teens, boys with moderate levels of impulsive behavior showed a significant increase in impulsivity if they had engaged in heavy drinking the previous year, as opposed to those with low or high levels of impulsive behavior.
The findings were released online in advance of publication in the February print issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
“Heavy alcohol use in adolescence may lead to alterations in brain structure and function that reduce behavioral (impulse) control, which could, in turn, promote further heavy drinking,” first author Helene R. White, professor of sociology at the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers University, said in a news release from the journal’s publisher.
“We chose boys because they tend to drink heavier than girls during adolescence, and adolescent boys generally exhibit less impulse control than adolescent girls,” she added.
The findings emphasize the need for prevention, said Andrew Littlefield, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Missouri. He was not involved in the study.
“Decreasing heavy drinking during adolescence may decrease impulsivity by preventing damage to crucial brain areas. Findings also suggested that adolescents who stopped heavy drinking later ‘rebounded’ to lower levels of impulsivity. Therefore, decreasing drinking during adolescence could result in improved self-control at later ages,” Littlefield said in the news release.
A new study in rats suggests that high-fat, high-calorie foods affect the brain in much the same way as cocaine and heroin. When rats consume these foods in great enough quantities, it leads to compulsive eating habits that resemble drug addiction, the study found.
Doing drugs such as cocaine and eating too much junk food both gradually overload the so-called pleasure centers in the brain, according to Paul J. Kenny, Ph.D., an associate professor of molecular therapeutics at the Scripps Research Institute, in Jupiter, Florida. Eventually the pleasure centers “crash,” and achieving the same pleasure–or even just feeling normal–requires increasing amounts of the drug or food, says Kenny, the lead author of the study.
“People know intuitively that there’s more to [overeating] than just willpower,” he says. “There’s a system in the brain that’s been turned on or over-activated, and that’s driving [overeating] at some subconscious level.”
In the study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Kenny and his co-author studied three groups of lab rats for 40 days. One of the groups was fed regular rat food. A second was fed bacon, sausage, cheesecake, frosting, and other fattening, high-calorie foods–but only for one hour each day. The third group was allowed to pig out on the unhealthy foods for up to 23 hours a day.
Not surprisingly, the rats that gorged themselves on the human food quickly became obese. But their brains also changed. By monitoring implanted brain electrodes, the researchers found that the rats in the third group gradually developed a tolerance to the pleasure the food gave them and had to eat more to experience a high.
They began to eat compulsively, to the point where they continued to do so in the face of pain. When the researchers applied an electric shock to the rats’ feet in the presence of the food, the rats in the first two groups were frightened away from eating. But the obese rats were not. “Their attention was solely focused on consuming food,” says Kenny.
In previous studies, rats have exhibited similar brain changes when given unlimited access to cocaine or heroin. And rats have similarly ignored punishment to continue consuming cocaine, the researchers note.
The fact that junk food could provoke this response isn’t entirely surprising, says Dr.Gene-Jack Wang, M.D., the chair of the medical department at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, in Upton, New York.
“We make our food very similar to cocaine now,” he says.
Coca leaves have been used since ancient times, he points out, but people learned to purify or alter cocaine to deliver it more efficiently to their brains (by injecting or smoking it, for instance). This made the drug more addictive.
According to Wang, food has evolved in a similar way. “We purify our food,” he says. “Our ancestors ate whole grains, but we’re eating white bread. American Indians ate corn; we eat corn syrup.”
The ingredients in purified modern food cause people to “eat unconsciously and unnecessarily,” and will also prompt an animal to “eat like a drug abuser [uses drugs],” says Wang.
The neurotransmitter dopamine appears to be responsible for the behavior of the overeating rats, according to the study. Dopamine is involved in the brain’s pleasure (or reward) centers, and it also plays a role in reinforcing behavior. “It tells the brain something has happened and you should learn from what just happened,” says Kenny.
Overeating caused the levels of a certain dopamine receptor in the brains of the obese rats to drop, the study found. In humans, low levels of the same receptors have been associated with drug addiction and obesity, and may be genetic, Kenny says.
However, that doesn’t mean that everyone born with lower dopamine receptor levels is destined to become an addict or to overeat. As Wang points out, environmental factors, and not just genes, are involved in both behaviors.
Wang also cautions that applying the results of animal studies to humans can be tricky. For instance, he says, in studies of weight-loss drugs, rats have lost as much as 30 percent of their weight, but humans on the same drug have lost less than 5 percent of their weight. “You can’t mimic completely human behavior, but [animal studies] can give you a clue about what can happen in humans,” Wang says.
Although he acknowledges that his research may not directly translate to humans, Kenny says the findings shed light on the brain mechanisms that drive overeating and could even lead to new treatments for obesity.
“If we could develop therapeutics for drug addiction, those same drugs may be good for obesity as well,” he says.
Now, in an effort to fight the war on smoking — especially when it comes to children — the FDA is issuing a new rule titled Regulations Restricting the Sale and Distribution of Cigarettes and Smokeless Tobacco to Protect Children and Adolescents.
The rule contains federal requirements that will significantly curb adolescents’ access to cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products. It would also keep manufacturers from marketing tobacco products for the younger smoker.
The rule, which becomes effective June 22, will prohibit the sale of cigarettes or smokeless tobacco to people younger than 18, prohibit the sale of cigarette packages with less than 20 cigarettes, prohibit distribution of free samples of cigarettes, restrict distribution of free samples of smokeless tobacco, and prohibit tobacco brand name sponsorship of any athletic, musical or other social or cultural events. It would also keep tobacco manufacturers from passing out free hats, T-shirts and other memorabilia with their product names on them to children.
Though regulations already on the books cover some of those areas, the new regulation imposes heavier fines, officials said. But the FDA did not elaborate on fine increases in the announcement Thursday.
“It’s important all Americans lead healthy lives,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said. “That means protecting our children from unhealthy habits as well.”
“Many of these kids will become addicted before they are old enough to understand the risks and will ultimately die too young. This is an avoidable personal tragedy for those kids and their families as well as a preventable public health disaster for our country,” FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said. “Putting these restrictions in place is necessary to protect the health of those we care most about: our children.”
Under the ruling, the FDA will work closely with states to make sure retailers comply with the rule. The agency will also work with retail communities over the coming months to educate retailers about the new requirements.
The FDA also will help retailers better understand how to comply and how to protect children and adolescents from “addictive products.”
Manufacturers and retailers who do not comply may be subject to legal action.
David Howard, spokesman for RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co., the second-largest tobacco company in the U.S., said the new ruling comes as no surprise.
“Virtually everything in this announcement is already in place,” Howard said. “What’s important to note is that since 1996, tobacco use among youth has declined significantly, and that is a very good thing and should continue. We look forward to working with the FDA on this and other matters of interest moving forward, because we believe cooperation and open dialogue is the best approach to developing an effective science-based regulatory framework for the tobacco industry.
The rule was included as a key provision of the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, signed by President Obama in June.
It comes on the heels of an FDA announcement in September that banned flavored cigarettes and flavored tobacco because of their appeal to kids. Studies have shown that 17-year-old smokers are three times as likely to use flavored cigarettes as smokers over the age of 25.
“Flavored cigarettes attract and allure kids into lifetime addiction,” Howard Koh, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Health, said when the ban was announced.
Since the smoking prevention act was signed last summer, the FDA has established tobacco-user fees, has asked for lists of all the products manufactured by tobacco companies and has put together an advisory committee on smoking in the United States. That committee will convene in the next two weeks.
“For too long, our country has been forced to endure the overwhelming diseases and illnesses caused by tobacco and smoking,” Koh said. “It’s time we start making some real changes.”
R-rated movies portray violence and other behaviors deemed inappropriate for children under 17 year of age. A new study finds one more reason why parents should not let their kids watch those movies: adolescents who watch R-rated movies are more likely to try alcohol at a young age.
Published in the March issue of Prevention Science, a scientific journal of the Society for Prevention Research, the study of 6,255 children examined the relationship between watching R-rated movies and the probability of alcohol use across different levels of “sensation seeking,” which is a tendency to seek out risky experiences. The study was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and conducted by James D. Sargent, MD, a pediatrician at Dartmouth Medical School. The children were surveyed every 8 months for a period of two years from 2003 through 2005.
“The study found that watching R-rated movies affected the level of sensation seeking among adolescents. It showed that R-rated movies not only contain scenes of alcohol use that prompt adolescents to drink, they also jack up the sensation seeking tendency, which makes adolescents more prone to engage in all sorts of risky behaviors” Sargent said.
“There is another take home point in the findings. When it comes to the direct effect on alcohol use, the influence of R-rated movies depends on sensation seeking level. High sensation seekers are already at high risk for use of alcohol, and watching a lot of R-rated movies raises their risk only a little. But for low sensation seekers, R-rated movies make a big difference. In fact, exposure to R-rated movies can make a low sensation seeking adolescent drink like a high sensation seeking adolescent.” Sargent explained.
The Dartmouth pediatrician said that one possible explanation is high sensation seeking adolescents tend to get their experiences out on the street. They hang around other high sensation seekers, who are also engaging in risky behaviors, so there is less room for movies to make a difference in their risk for alcohol use.
R-Rated Movies and Alcohol
“The message to parents is clear. Take the movie ratings literally. Under 17 should not be permitted to see R-rated movies,” Sargent said.
The study was based on telephone surveys of 6,522 adolescents aged 10-14 years. Parental consent and adolescent consent was obtained prior to interviewing each respondent. To protect confidentiality, adolescents indicated their answers to sensitive questions by pressing numbers on the telephone, rather than speaking aloud. The study sample mirrored the U.S. adolescent population with respect to age, sex, household income and census region, but with a slightly higher percentage of Hispanics and a slightly lower percentage of Blacks.
Sensation seeking was based on how individual subjects identified with statements like: “I like to do scary things, I like to do dangerous things, I often think there is nothing to do, and I like to listen to loud music.” Adolescents were also asked if they had ever tried alcohol that their parents were not aware of. This excluded adolescents who initiated drinking with sips of alcohol provided by parents. R-rated movie watching was measured by asking respondents if they had watched a random selection of movie titles drawn from box office hits during 2003 that had grossed at least $15 million. The movie titles included movies that had G (general audience), P/G (parental guidance) and R (restricted) ratings.
The study tracked 3,800 people born from 1981 to 1984, according to researchers at the Brain Institute at the University of Queensland in Australia. They asked the test subjects at ages 14 and 21, and their mothers, about their mental health record and whether they had used any drugs, specifically cannabis. Fourteen percent acknowledged using marijuana for six or more years.
“We looked at the association between how old they were when they first started to use cannabis. And then, on the other hand, we looked at how their mental health was and, in particular, whether they had psychotic disorders or isolated symptoms, such as hallucinations or delusions. And indeed we found a highly significant relationship,” said psychiatrist John McGrath, a professor at the Brain Institute, the study’s lead researcher.
“For those who started using cannabis when they were 14 or 15, they had about a two-fold risk of schizophrenia.”
Previous studies also have looked at the relationship between marijuana use and psychosis.
“The quality of the evidence is really mounting up,” McGrath said. “There have been several studies now, which all point in the same direction, and there’s consistent and robust evidence that there’s an association between cannabis use and increased risk of psychosis.”
The University of Queensland study did not consider how much marijuana the teens used, only their age when they started using.
“Even though we don’t have the gradient or the dose they’d taken, we found the relationship to age,” McGrath said. “What we think it suggests is that the adolescent brain is more vulnerable to drug abuse. Now, other studies have shown the more you smoke, the more regularly you use cannabis, the risk goes up.”
McGrath likened marijuana risks to the dangers of tobacco smoking, and the decades and many studies it took for health officials to acknowledge the correlation between lung cancer and tobacco.
“From a public-health perspective, we need to educate young people that they might think cannabis is a safe drug to use, but the evidence shows it’s not quite as safe as we thought.”
Using shame or guilt to try to prevent over consumption of alcohol can actually cause people to drink more, researchers say.
Researcher Adam Duhachek of the Indiana Kelley School of Business and colleagues said that ads that link alcohol abuse to negative consequences like blackouts and automobile crashes in order to elicit feelings of shame or guilt can trigger a defensive coping mechanism. This can lead viewers to believe that bad things related to drinking can only happen to others and can actually increase irresponsible drinking, researchers said.
“The public health and marketing communities expend considerable effort and capital on these campaigns but have long suspected they were less effective than hoped,” said Duhachek. “But the situation is worse than wasted money or effort. These ads ultimately may do more harm than good because they have the potential to spur more of the behavior they’re trying to prevent.”
A better approach might be to educate the public about the negatives associated with drinking but link that message to one of empowerment, said Duhachek. “If you’re going to communicate a frightening scenario, temper it with the idea that it’s avoidable,” he said.
Most evenings, before we sleep, my young daughter and I sit in Mindfulness together for two minutes. I like to joke that two minutes is optimal for us because that is the attention span of a child and an engineer. For two minutes a day, we quietly enjoy being alive and being together. More fundamentally, for two minutes a day, we enjoy being. Just being. To “just be” is simultaneously the most ordinary and the most precious experience in life.
As usual, I let my experience with a child inform how I teach adults. This daily two-minutes experience is the basis of how I introduce the practice of Mindfulness in an introductory class for adults.
In learning and teaching Mindfulness, the good news is that Mindfulness is embarrassingly easy. It is easy because we all already know what it is like and it is something we all already experience from time to time. My friend and personal hero, Jon Kabat-Zinn, skilfully defined Mindfulness as, “Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally“. Thich Nhat Hanh, perhaps the greatest Zen Master of our time, refers to Mindfulness poetically as, “keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality“. Simply put, I think Mindfulness is the mind of “just being”. All you really need to do is to pay attention moment-to-moment without judging. It’s that simple.
The hard part in Mindfulness practice is deepening, strengthening and sustaining it, especially in times of difficulty. To have a quality of Mindfulness so strong that every moment in life, even in trying times, is infused with a deep calmness and a vivid presence, is very hard and takes a lot of practice. But Mindfulness per se is easy. It is easy to understand and easy to arise in oneself. That ease is what I capitalize on as an instructor.
In some of my classes, after explaining some of the theory and brain science behind Mindfulness, I offer two ways to experience a taste of Mindfulness, the “Easy Way”, and the “Easier Way”.
The creatively-named “Easy Way” is to simply bring gentle and consistent attention to one’s breath for two minutes. That’s it. Start by becoming aware that you are breathing, and then paying attention to the process of breathing. Everytime your attention wanders away, just bring it back very gently.
The “Easier Way” is, as its name may subtly suggest, even easier. All you have to do is to sit without agenda for two minutes. Life really cannot get much simpler than that. The idea here is to shift from “doing” to “being”, whatever that means to you, for just two minutes. Just be.
To make it even easier, you’re free to switch between the Easy Way and the Easier Way anytime during these two minutes. Anytime you feel like you want to bring awareness to breathing, just switch to Easy. And anytime you then decide you rather just sit without agenda, just switch to Easier. No questions asked.
This simple exercise is Mindfulness practice. Practiced often enough, and it deepens the inherent calmness and clarity in the mind. It opens up the possibility of fully appreciating each moment in one’s life, every one of which is precious. It is for many people, including myself, a life-changing practice. Imagine, something as simple as learning to “just be”, can change your life.
Best of all, it is something even a child knows how to do. Oh, and an engineer too.