Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Idiot or Genius? Difference May Come Down to a Single Gene, Scientists Say

May 17, 2011 |

Two genetic letters out of the 3 billion in the human genetic alphabet may spell the difference between a genius and an idiot, according to a new report.

A genetic analysis led by an international collaboration of scientists from the Yale School of Medicine determined that that tiny variation -- just two genetic letters within a single gene -- determines the intelligence potential or lack thereof of a human brain.

The report appeared online May 15 in the journal of Nature Genetics.

In normal brain function, convolutions, the deep fissures of the brain, increase the overall surface area, one of the primary determinants for intelligence. Deeper folds in the brain allow for rational and abstract thought, scientists believe.

In the latest finding, a team of researchers analyzed a Turkish patient whose brain lacks those characteristic convolutions in part of his cerebral cortex, a sheet of brain tissue that plays a key role in memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language and consciousness.

The cause of this drastic cerebral deformity was pinned down to a gene called laminin gamma3 (LAMC3) with similar variations discovered in other patients with the same medical condition.

"The demonstration of the fundamental role of this gene in human brain development affords us a step closer to solve the mystery of the crown jewel of creation, the cerebral cortex," said Murat Gunel, senior author of the paper, co-director of the Neurogenetics Program and professor of genetics and neurobiology at Yale.

The folding of the brain is seen only in mammals with larger brains, such as dolphins and apes, and is most pronounced in humans. These fissures expand the surface area of the cerebral cortex and allow for complex thought and reasoning without taking up more space in the skull. Such foldings aren't seen in mammals such as rodents or other animals.

Despite the importance of these foldings, no one has been able to explain how the brain manages to create them. The LAMC3 gene may be crucial to the process.

"Although the same gene is present in lower organisms with smooth brains such as mice, somehow over time, it has evolved to gain novel functions that are fundamental for human occipital cortex formation and its mutation leads to the loss of surface convolutions, a hallmark of the human brain," Gunel said.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Poetry, film give voice for OCD sufferers

(CNN) -- "I'm edging towards being a recluse, but choose daily to fight for release from this crippling prison."

This is how Gemma Boyd describes her life with obsessive compulsive disorder, a mental illness marked by unwanted thoughts and repeated behaviors or rituals intended to reduce anxiety. She wrote these words in a poem last November, the first time she tried to deal with her daily struggles through creative writing.

Boyd, a 35-year-old British musician and poet, shared her poem online with Machine Man, an online forum where anyone with something to say about OCD can submit art, creative writing and multimedia projects, in addition to joining conversations about the condition. The forum is the online counterpart to a movie project called "Machine Man," both of which aim to spread greater awareness of OCD.

The film will aim to "get it out there what OCD really is, and take away some of the shame and stigma," said Kellie Madison, writer and director of "Machine Man."

It will portray a young man's struggle with OCD, showing how intense anxiety and compulsions quickly take over his life and prevent him from pursuing a relationship with the woman he loves. The script is complete, and production is still in the fundraising stages.

In the online forum, Boyd and others with OCD have found a safe space to express a part of themselves previously shrouded in silence. And they're energized by the prospect of a movie that would both represent their struggles and educate a wide audience about the disorder.

"I'm hoping that I'll be able to have a platform with this movie, and to try to really change my life around, because I have no choice but to do that," said Stephanie, a poetry contributor to the "Machine Man" forum who suffers from OCD, who asked that her last name not be used.

About 2% of adults in the United States have OCD, according to the National Institutes of Health. Across the ocean, where Boyd lives, about 1% of the United Kingdom's population is thought to have it, although this estimate is probably low, says the organization OCD-UK.

The illness often has an element of predisposition, meaning some people are more likely to develop it than others, said John Tsilimparis, an OCD therapist in Los Angeles. In fact, there is some evidence that people with OCD have distinct brain activity patterns. Stressful situations and traumatic events can trigger symptoms.

"I'm the architect still, I forgot how to draw. My healthy balance and perspective is a bit flawed. I'm OCD, tried for perfection for too many reasons," writes Stephanie in a recent poem called "My Frame".

For Boyd, 35, it was a traumatic event (which she'd prefer to keep private) that got her obsessively worrying about contamination about five years ago. But prior that, she had a mountain of bad memories from being sexually abused as a child that she'd repressed, and which also fueled her anxiety.

The intrusive thoughts started with a fear of blood. Over time they expanded; she became afraid of being attacked by men, any men, and could vividly imagine assaults even from male friends. In some of the worst periods, she couldn't leave her house because she kept checking and checking appliances, fearing a fire or home invasion.

"Relentlessly checking and re-checking numbers, magazine pages, text messages, household appliances -- everything -- causes my nerves to jangle 24-7: a gradual wearing down of brain function and twisting and twirling children who repeat and repeat aggravate my stifled anger," Boyd wrote in her poem.

To this day, she avoids many situations she used to enjoy so that she can avoid social contact: swimming pools, movie theaters, and restaurants.

"It's a battle against things which lots of people take for granted. I don't let it completely ruin my life, but it has made my life an uphill struggle," she said.

Crowds are out of the question -- unless, curiously enough, the people are listening to her play music. A professional musician, Boyd has found that the anxiety that restricts her in daily life isn't as bad when she's behind the double bass (her website lists six gigs lined up in May already). Music has been a sort of medicine, she says.

"When I'm performing, because I've got an instrument in front of me, I feel I'm protected a bit," she said. "When I'm in a normal situation, I feel as if I haven't got a skin."

As freely as OCD may be mentioned these days in popular culture -- a recent episode of "Glee" focused on it, for example -- Boyd had a tough time getting help near her hometown of Brighton and Hove, England.

She underwent several psychological assessments before receiving the diagnoses of OCD and post-traumatic stress disorder. Then she waited. And waited. It took about three years before she got to see a therapist who was supposed to be the best person in the area for OCD relating to sexual abuse. As it turns out, the therapist admitted that she didn't know much about OCD at all. Boyd stuck with her anyway for two years, but it only partially helped.

"I'm scared of opening up and then being told that there's no help available," she said. "Instead of seeking that help, I'll read the literature (about OCD), which isn't ideal."

Boyd has gotten some of her most critical OCD education through watching television and reading. The A&E program "Obsessed" taught her the difference between "obsession" and "compulsion," as well as the biological underpinnings of the disorder and various kinds of therapies.

A behavioral treatment shown to help people with OCD is called exposure therapy. Basically, the patient is forced to confront her fears -- for example, going out in public if she wouldn't normally, or letting time pass without checking to see if appliances were left on. The therapist systematically helps the person desensitize herself, Tsilimparis said. Psychiatrists may also prescribe drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which help depression as well.

Since Boyd's struggle with OCD has become more difficult recently, she's eager to investigate more OCD-specific treatment options in her country.

She does not take medication, and has decided against it for the time being. She has tried exposure therapy techniques on her own, but it's exhausting without support.

"You do need somebody to physically be there while you're experiencing these feelings, which I think can be pretty terrifying," she said.

On the bright side, Boyd has received positive feedback on her poem in the "Machine Man" forum, and some people have asked her to write more about it. She says she probably will.

"It's kind of helped me feel not so alone with my OCD," she said. "Hopefully, I've helped other people see they're not alone."

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden's death: How should we feel?

(CNN) -- You may be relieved or even ecstatic about the end of a symbol of terror, or maybe it seems like the pain is just beginning all over again.

Both of these reactions to the death of Osama bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. troops in Pakistan, are natural, experts say.

From the celebrations in Washington and New York, it looks like lots of people are happy. Chants of "USA! USA!" reverberated outside the White House and at New York's ground zero as crowds celebrated the death of the terrorist leader, President Obama announced Sunday.

As far as the collective American psyche goes, it makes sense that this is a moment of celebration, says Columbia University psychiatrist Dr. Jeffery Lieberman. The country has been experiencing emotional malaise, with a slow-moving economy, a sense of America losing its No. 1 status in the world, and a decade of pent-up anguish about the threat of terrorism. Much like the World War II years, these have been uncertain times.

Then, rumors of bin Laden's death, confirmed by an announcement from the president, lifted that burden of pain and helplessness.

"In the blink of an eye, the gloom and doom and pessimism has dissipated," Lieberman said.

After bin Laden: What does it mean to you?

But wait a minute: Should we rejoice in the death of another human being?

But although bin Laden claimed responsibility for the destruction of the World Trade Center and the deaths of thousands of Americans, the outpouring of celebration doesn't feel right for everyone.

David Sirota, a newspaper columnist and a contributor to Salon felt uncomfortable with the jubilation because he said there is a "difference between relief and euphoria."

"A euphoric response instead of somber relief suggests that we are celebrating revenge. We are not celebrating an end to the war," he said, comparing it to the public's euphoria when World War II ended.

"What's a little scary about this: We were once a country that saw violence as regrettable, but sometimes necessary act. But we're not celebrating end of violence, but the exercise of it."

Josh Pesavento, 22, a journalism student in New York who photographed the cheering crowds in Times Square on Monday morning, also felt conflicted about the celebrations he witnessed.

"I don't believe that any person has the right to kill anyone, and I don't think that we should be cheering for yet more loss of life. However, I tell myself that in this situation, these people may be cheering for the end of an icon who led to the death of far, far too many," Pesavento said.

For some, bin Laden represents an idea more than a person who lived and died. More than the death of a human being, this ends the life of a powerful symbol of terrorism and destruction, said Nadine Kaslow, psychologist at Emory University. Bin Laden's death hits closer to home in the U.S. than the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein, for example, because the Iraqi dictator did not directly attack American soil, she said.

The celebratory mood reflects a sense that fairness and justice had been restored and that a terrorist got his comeuppance, said Kaslow.

"I think people feel like this guy got what he deserved. It was a sense that it was 'our family' that was killed," she said.

But there are likely others who aren't chanting on the streets for whom the death of bin Laden brings back painful memories of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she said.

People who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001, may have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the killing of bin Laden may open old wounds, Lieberman said.

"It doesn't bring their loved ones back. It doesn't ease their pain. There was so much more to this than catching bin Laden. At best, they would be bittersweet: It feels good to have the relief of this guy being gone, but the pain of their loss is very strong and very real to them," said Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a Yale University psychologist.

Diana Massaroli, who lost her husband, Michael Massaroli, in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, said the news of bin Laden's death made her feel an "overall calm that I haven't felt in 10 years."

"I feel better ... like I can start a new chapter in my life."

Sirota and Kaslow likened bin Laden's death to the execution of a convicted murderer of someone's family, which may bring a sense of closure for some. In the case of bin Laden, though, there is fear of retaliation from terrorist groups.

"Relief also comes with a kind of sadness that the victims can never be brought back and sadness at the world that creates such a perpetrator," Sirota said.

Even people who didn't feel the direct impact of the attacks on September 11, 2001, will feel relief, Kaslow said. After all, everyone gets reminded of the global insecurity that resulted whenever they go to the airport.

The terrorist leader's living situation also doesn't bring about any sympathy -- he wasn't starving and struggling in a cave, but rather lived in a mansion, which adds to his perceived arrogance, Kaslow said.

The news of bin Laden's death "allows us to put some sort of order" to the horror of 9-11 because otherwise, "it's upsetting, disconcerting when we're reminded how unpredictable life, death and the world around us could be," said Sam Sommer, associate professor of psychology at Tufts University.

People's reactions are likely tied to how emotionally and personally they felt to the events 10 years ago, Sommer said.

"It seems to me that the emotional reaction had a lot to do with the differences in how people view this -- whether it's the right triumphing over evil -- a lot of young people are viewing this in that way," Nolen-Hoeksema said.

She noted that her teenage son and his friends were enthusiastically tweeting about the news in a tone that "this is a bad guy, the good guys got him finally -- that's all they are seeing." After, all Jack Bauer of "24" was trending on Twitter.

But the one common factor was that everyone felt a need to share the news and their observations -- whether it was rallying in front of the White House, or tweeting or updating their Facebook page.

"These emotionally charged events send us back to our social roots and make us need to affiliate with other people," Sommer said.

CNN's Nicole Saidi contributed to this report.