The King Provides Clues to Human Emotion

Last year, while waiting to catch a plane from Washington DC to San Antonio TX, I was joined by a young gentleman, around 24 or 25 years of age and his super-glamorous mom. Initially I was somewhat surprised that they had chosen to sit right next to me, given that the departure area was otherwise empty.

Within seconds he had struck up a conversation, within minutes I was practically his new BFF and before the flight was called he was holding my hand, whispering in my ear and grinning like a teenager.

Before you start thinking “wedding bells” or “cougar time”, what I learned from his mom, was that he had Williams syndrome. What I learned later, after googling the condition, was that people with Williams syndrome have an unusually gregarious personality. They view everyone as their friend, and it’s not unusual for them to rush up to total strangers and strike up conversations as though they are old acquaintances.

Those with the disorder look at the world through a unique lens. Despite their desire to befriend people they have high levels of generalized anxiety poor social judgment, disturbed peer relationships and altered responses to fearful and happy faces.  Their average IQ is 60, they experience severe spatial-visual problems, and suffer from cardiovascular and other health issues. They also have an affinity for music.

This week, I learned that the latter trait is helping scientists shed light on the mystery of emotion and human interaction. Social and emotional responses are so fundamental to human behavior that they are often taken for granted. However, the genetic and neurobiological bases of social behavior are largely unknown, as are the mechanisms for disruptions in social behavior and emotional regulation that appear throughout the lifespan as features of mental illnesses.

In a study led by Julie R. Korenberg, Ph.D., M.D. one of the world’s leading experts in genetics, brain, and behavior of Williams syndrome, people with and without Williams syndrome listened to music while researchers  gauged emotional response by measuring the release of oxytocin and arginine vasopressin – two hormones associated with emotion.

The study, published in PLoS One, signals a paradigm shift both for understanding human emotional and behavioral systems and expediting the treatments of illnesses such as Williams syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and possibly even autism.

The study is also the first to reveal new genes that control emotional responses and to show that arginine vasopressin is involved in the response to music.

The trial involved  21 participants – 13 with Williams syndrome and a control group of 8 without the disorder. Before the music was played, participants’ blood was drawn to determine a baseline level for oxytocin. Those with Williams syndrome had three times as much of the hormone as those without the syndrome.

Blood also was drawn at regular intervals while the music played and was analyzed afterward to check for real-time changes.

While other studies have examined how oxytocin affects emotion when artificially introduced into people through nasal sprays, this is the one of the first significant studies to measure naturally occurring changes in oxytocin levels in rapid, real-time as people undergo an emotional response.

Researchers asked the first participant to listen to the 1950’s Elvis Presley classic, “Love Me Tender.” The woman showed no outward response to the song. So, to elicit a greater response from the remaining study participants, the researchers invited them to bring along their favorite music.  Many of them chose heavy metal, but again, there was little outward response to the music.

However, when the blood samples were analyzed, they showed that oxytocin levels, and to a lesser degree arginine vasopressin (AVP), had not only increased but begun to bounce among the William syndrome group. In contrast, both oxytocin and AVP levels remained largely unchanged as those without Williams syndrome listened to music.

Interestingly, the oxytocin level in the woman who’d listened to “Love Me Tender” skyrocketed compared to the levels of participants who listened to different music.

Korenberg believes the blood analyses strongly indicate that oxytocin and AVP are not regulated correctly in people with Williams syndrome, and that the behavioral characteristics unique to people with the condition are related to this problem.

To ensure accuracy of results, study participants were also asked to place their hands in 60° Fahrenheit water to test for negative stress. The same results were produced as when they listened to music. Those with Williams syndrome experienced an increase in oxytocin and AVP, while those without the syndrome did not.

In addition, study participants took three standard social behavior tests that evaluated willingness to approach and speak to strangers, emotional states, and various areas of adaptive and problem behavior. Those test results suggest that increased levels of oxytocin are linked to both increased desire to seek social interaction and decreased ability to process social cues.

The association between abnormal levels of oxytocin and AVP and altered social behaviors found in people with Williams Syndrome points to surprising, entirely unsuspected deleted genes involved in regulation of these hormones and human sociability,” Korenberg said. “It also suggests that the simple characterization of oxytocin as ‘the love hormone’ may be an overreach. The data paint a far more complicated picture.”

However, the results of the study offer great hope. By regulating levels of oxytocin and vasopressin it should be possible to relieve suffering and improve the lives of those with Williams syndrome.

In the meantime, this study certainly brings new meaning to the phrase “mood music.”

Homeopathy gets a Nobel nod

Dr. Luc Montagnier, the French virologist who won the Nobel Prize in 2008 for discovering the AIDS virus, has surprised the scientific community with his strong support for homeopathic medicine.

In a remarkable interview published in Science magazine, Professor Montagnier expressed support for the often maligned and misunderstood medical specialty of homeopathic medicine. Although homeopathy has been around for >200 years, most conventional physicians and scientists have expressed skepticism about its efficacy due to the extremely small and highly diluted doses of medicines used.

Montagnier disagrees. “I can’t say that homeopathy is right in everything. What I can say now is that the high dilutions (used in homeopathy) are right. High dilutions of something are not nothing. They are water structures which mimic the original molecules.”

His experimental research confirms that even after sequential dilution, electromagnetic signals of the original medicine remains in the water and can have dramatic biological effects.

Montagnier has just taken a new position at Jiaotong University in Shanghai, China where his work will focus on the phenomenon of electromagnetic waves produced by DNA in water. He and his team will study both the theoretical basis and the possible applications in medicine.

He is confident  that these new observations will lead to novel treatments for many common chronic diseases, including but not limited to autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.

In the Science magazine interview Montagnier also expressed real concern about the unscientific atmosphere that presently exists on certain unconventional subjects such as homeopathy. When asked if he is concerned that he is drifting into pseudoscience, he replied adamantly: “No, because it’s not pseudoscience. It’s not quackery. These are real phenomena which deserve further study.”

This is in stark contrast to the recent statement from the British Medical Association who referred to homeopathy as “witchcraft.”

So, who’s right?  SRxA’s Word on Health wonders if it’s the case that when one goes on a witch hunt, one inevitably finds “witches!”

Let us know what you think.

Clinical Research under scrutiny?

If you watched the news at all over the past week you probably saw CNN‘s Sanjay Gupta‘s confrontation with disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield.  He, as you may recall was the author of the 1998 study that linked autism to some childhood vaccines and set off a worldwide scare for parents.

In the intervening years there have been countless lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers and millions of children who, perhaps needlessly, have gone unvaccinated.  Recently,  an investigative report published in the British Medical Journal called the original study an elaborate fraud.

So, is Dr Wakefield alone in manipulating clinical trial data?  Can we rely on other clinical studies to provide us with the truth?

No, not according to researchers at Johns Hopkins.  In a report published January 4th in the Annals of Internal Medicine the authors concluded that the vast majority of published clinical trials of a given drug, device or procedure are routinely ignored by scientists conducting new research on the same topic.

Trials being done may not be justified, because researchers are not looking at or at least not reporting what is already known.  In some cases, patients who volunteer for clinical trials may be getting a placebo for a medication that a previous researcher has already determined works or may be getting a treatment that another researcher has shown is of no value. In rare instances, patients have suffered severe side effects and even died in studies because researchers were not aware of previous studies documenting a treatment’s dangers.

Not surprising then that they go on to say, “the failure to consider existing evidence is both unscientific and unethical.”

The report argues that these omissions potentially skew scientific results, waste taxpayer money on redundant studies and involve patients in unnecessary research.

Conducting an analysis of published studies, the Johns Hopkins team concludes that researchers, on average, cited less than 21% of previously published, relevant studies in their papers. For papers with at least five prior publications available for citation, one-quarter cited only one previous trial, while another quarter cited no other previous trials on the topic. Those statistics stayed roughly the same even as the number of papers available for citation increased. Larger studies were no more likely to be cited than smaller ones.

The extent of the discrepancy between the existing evidence and what was cited is pretty large and pretty striking,” said Karen Robinson, Ph.D., co-director of the Evidence Based Practice Center (EPIC) at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and co-author of the research.  “It’s like listening to one witness as opposed to the other 12 witnesses in a criminal trial and making a decision without all the evidence. Clinical trials should not be started — and cannot be interpreted — without a full accounting of the existing evidence.”

The Hopkins researchers could not say why prior trials failed to be cited, but Robinson says one reason for the omissions could be the self-interest of researchers trying to get ahead.

Want to make sure that your clinical trials stay on track and that your publications are evidence-based?

Contact SRxA for more details.