Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My Quirks

I'm reading Hannah Holmes' book Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality.  I'm not sure it's totally made sense of my peculiarly peculiar personality yet, but I'm only a little ways into it.

I found her discussion of SSRI's (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) interesting.  About five years ago, SSRI's were touted as the new wave of medications for depression and anxiety.

Since it was determined that the chemical neurotransmitter serotonin affects mood, the logic was, depressed individuals may have too little serotonin in their neural synapses.  SSRI's were developed using "rational drug design"--that is, they were discovered not by a process of trial and error involving tests on cell cultures or animals, but by postulating the therapeutic effects of targeting a specific biological target (in this case, serotonin) and then developing drugs based on this hypothesis.

They are the first psychotropic drugs to be developed using this method.

The SSRI's do exactly what their name suggests: they inhibit the absorption of serotonin (its "reuptake") so that more serotonin remains in the individual's neural synapses.

Several problems remain: first, serotonin exists both within cells and outside of them, in synapses, but SSRI's can only target external levels of serotonin--there's no way of predicting or targeting serotonin levels within cells themselves.  And mood may be a result of the balance between internal and external serotonin, and not just its quantity or level.

Secondly (and contrary to what was initially assumed), many people suffering from depression and anxiety actually have high levels of serotonin, so SSRI's are simply compounding the problem.

Thirdly, there is a lot more to mood than serotonin.  As Holmes suggests, "Serotonin is a big player, but there are many others, all interacting.  As one rises, another falls and a third does cartwheels" (26).

Ultimately, serotonin drugs are effective for less than 50% of the people who take them.  A report published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in January of 2010 concluded that the benefits of antidepressant medications "may be minimal or nonexistent, on average, in patients with mild or moderate symptoms," although in individuals suffering from severe depression, they do offer a "substantial" benefit as compared to placebo.

At the same time, however, that "substantial" benefit falls short of the accepted standards for a "clinically significant" effect.  As a study published in PLoS Medicine in 2008 concludes, "Drug–placebo differences in antidepressant efficacy increase as a function of baseline severity, but are relatively small even for severely depressed patients."

A blog post entitled "Death to the Serotonin Hypothesis" (April 2007) points out that, as early as 2005, researchers were aware of the fact that the presumed link between serotonin and depression/anxiety was not only scientifically unsupported but "logically flawed" as well.

This ties into one of my quirks (or pet peeves): the fact that no one is out there telling anyone these things because the direct-to-consumer marketing practiced by the pharmaceutical industry is just that, marketing.

Not informationMARKETING.  Which means they're never, ever going to tell you, "Hey, this drug isn't really working the way we thought it would.  And it may not be working at all, for quite a few of you.  In fact, quite a few of you could maybe just take a sugar pill and get the same results--or better."

If I graded fewer than 50% of my students' papers or showed up for work sober approximately 50% of the time, I think people would argue that I'm not functioning effectively at my assigned task, despite all of my charming and charismatic protests to the contrary.

When it comes to curbing anxiety, Holmes quotes the advice of Klaus-Peter Lesch, one of the foremost researchers on the links between neurobiology and personality.

"Resilience," he argues, is attained through "A work-life balance. ...  A regular lifestyle.  And lots of exercise" (47).

So there's that.  But in the meantime, my rhododendrons look pretty:


I also planted mint and asparagus.  By all accounts, the mint will grow like a weed, and I will probably live to rue the day I ever planted it.  The asparagus, on the other hand, takes two years to grow, so this is very much a long-term commitment.

Here's hoping I don't forget that I planted it.

And my jam is done, but I ran into a few problems along the way, so I'm not sure if this batch will be successful.



Turns out, the good people who write on the boxes of liquid pectin that it's exactly the same as powdered pectin and that you should just follow the recipe are, well, lying.  You need to add twice as much to get the crushed berries to gel, and you need to add it after the berries begin to boil, not before.

Luckily, I was in a good mood, so I decided to just let it slide, redo the batch to try to fix it, and then hope for the best.

The alternative was to write a letter denouncing them for their incompetence, complete with photos of a very frustrated me standing over a pot of simmering berries, angrily brandishing a slotted spoon and looking kind of like this:



So... this may be a failed batch of jam, or it may be okay.

I'm not worried, because I still have a couple of quarts of berries left, and one of my personal quirks is a firm belief that, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."