25 June 2011

Can we get any smarter? (A conversation with my boy about neuroscience)

A PET image showing energy consumption in the hungry brain. Credit: Wiki
"Can we get any smarter?" That is the question that piqued the interest of a 14-year-old boy yesterday when he saw it on the cover of the July issue of Scientific American. 

What came next was a reading of Douglas Fox's fascinating "The Limits of Intelligence," some heavy thought in a young teenager's head, and a surprised father who rarely has a conversation with his son about neuroscience.

Plus, that same father is rarely met when he comes home from working all day to a welcome like this, "Hi dad. Do you want to go see a cool movie?"

The movie my boy wanted to see (with me!) was Limitless, a science fiction flick he'd seen before about a man who takes a drug that unlocks his ability to use the "other 80 percent of his brain." We went to see it and, as my son pointed out after the movie, all of what was portrayed was just impossible.

How Diet and Lifestyle Influence Telomere Length

Telomere length has a proportional and linear relationship to omega-3 fatty acids.
With all the attention surrounding telomere length as a biomarker of biological aging, it’s worth pointing out that one nutrient may make a lot of difference: fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids.

The higher the blood levels of fish-derived omega-3 acids in patients with coronary heart disease, the longer the telomeres. This was what was found by researchers recently from University of California, San Francisco.


The study (Farzaneh et al. 2010), published in the January issue of JAMA last year, showed that leukocyte telomere length (LTL) was positively associated with higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids (see Figure).

“Omega-3 fatty acids may protect against cellular aging in patients with coronary heart disease,” the authors wrote.

This longitudinal study followed 608 patients with stable coronary artery disease for five years. LTL was measured at baseline and again five years later. The baseline levels of omega-3 fatty acids were then used to compare the rates of telomere attrition over the five-year period.

“Association of omega-3 fatty acids with decelerated telomere attrition may lie in the paradigm of oxidative stress, a powerful driver of telomere shortening,” the authors wrote.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to increase levels of catalase and superoxide dismutase (enzymes that serve important antioxidant roles in the body). The researchers hypothesize that omega-3s may even increase the activity of existing telomerase, the enzyme responsible for the addition of base pairs to DNA during replication.

14 June 2011

Updated clinical vitamin D guidelines

Michael Holick, MD, Ph.D., told me in a phone interview nearly a year ago that vitamin D insufficiency and deficiency was "one of the most common medical conditions" and has implications on the health of bones, the heart, the immune system, and likely every cell in the body.

Dr. Holick added, "If a normal adult isn’t taking at least 1,500 to 2,000 IU from supplement and diet—and you can’t really get it from your diet—then we know you’re vitamin D deficient."

Now, The Endocrine Society has released new clinical practice guidelines intended to help curtail widespread vitamin D deficiency with extra focus on care for populations who are most at risk.

The guidelines follow on the coattails of last November's updated vitamin D recommendations by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which several experts have condemned as conservative and inadequate. In response, a "Task Force," led by Dr. Holick, reexamined the evidence and compiled new recommendations to provide a more therapeutic emphasis.

The guidelines call for screening populations at risk for vitamin D deficiency and correcting deficiencies with supplementation at levels high enough to maximize effects on calcium, bone and muscle metabolism.

The Task Force recommends maintaining blood concentrations of 25(OH)2D (the active circulating form of vitamin D) consistently above 30 ng/mL. Circulating blood levels below 30 ng/mL are regarded as "insufficient" and below 20 ng/mL as "deficient".

To assist at-risk individuals with meeting blood levels above 30 ng/mL of circulating vitamin D, the Task Force issued new dietary intake recommendations that differ significantly from those given by the IOM:
  • Infants ages 0-1: 400-1,000 IU/day
  • Children ages 1-18: 600-1,000 IU/day
  • Adults ages 18+: 1,500-2,000 IU/day
  • Pregnant or nursing women under 18: 600-1,000 IU/day
  • Pregnant or nursing women 18+: 1,500-2,000 IU/day
  • Obese children and adults: at least 2-3 times the recommendation for their age group
  • Children and adults on anticonvulsants, antifungals and AIDS medications: at least 2-3 times the recommendation for their age group
The Task Force also increased Tolerable Upper Limits for vitamin D to substantially higher levels than what the IOM recommended last fall.

11 June 2011

Depression and telomeres

Reference: Wolkowitz et al. 2011 March.
People who suffer from major depression have a higher risk of age-related illness and earlier mortality (1 &2). Researchers from University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), investigated (1) telomere length in depressed individuals versus matched controls and assessed other biological factors associated with telomere shortening.

Led by Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D., the team of researchers published their findings in the March issue of PLos One. Their hypothesis was that not all depressed subjects would show shortened telomeres equally because of a large variance in depressive episodes over a lifetime. However, they predicted that those who suffered from depression for long durations would have shorter telomeres due to longer exposure to oxidative stress and inflammation induced by psychological stress.

The scientists recruited 18 subjects diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), excluding those with psychosis or bipolar histories, as well as those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to eliminate confounding variables due to interferences with stress hormone regulation. Results from depressed individuals were compared to those of the matched control group.