Author Archives: Christian Elliott

About Christian Elliott

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Solving Complex Problems with Avocados

Monounsaturated Fatty Acids – a class of nutrients found in olive oils, nuts and avocados – support the brain’s attention networks, and also help cognitive health through improved insulin sensitivity.

Your ability to focus on, and solve problems can be influenced by diet choices, according to a study out of University of Illinois. The study of 99 healthy older adults, recruited through Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, compared patterns of fatty acid nutrients found in blood samples, functional MRI data that measured the efficiency of brain networks, and results of a general intelligence test.

Monounsaturated Fatty Acids, or MUFAs, are found in olives, avocados, a variety of nuts (almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias and pecans), and plant-based oils (olive, canola, peanut, and sunflower).

Researchers tracked the MUFA blood serum levels of the study participants, and noted a strong correlation between higher levels of MUFAs and greater general intelligence, which is comprised in part by the dorsal and ventral attention networks:

The dorsal and ventral attention networks refer to a group of cortical regions that support sustained attention and working memory function, both of which are necessary for complex problem solving.

Fighting Off Insulin Resistance and Diabetes

An additional benefit to a diet high in MUFAs is keeping insulin sensitivity in top shape.

Diabetes, and the precursor of insulin resistance are harmful to cognitive health. Having diabetes can double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Interested to know more about healthy food choices?

Download this free guide to the MIND diet, which lists the top foods for better brain health.

The Addiction Paradox

The same reward circuits in our brains that we use for survival also leave humans perpetually vulnerable to addiction.

Our brains are wired for survival.

The human brain is finely tuned to seek out rewards like food, sex, and money, and to avoid painful experiences like being killed by dangerous predators, large and small.

Called the dopamine reward pathway, this brain feedback system provides the motivation to learn and repeat behaviors that give us pleasure, rewards, and safety:

Heroin, and synthetic opioids like Percocet, hydrocodone, and fentanyl essentially hijack the brain’s natural reward system.

Initial exposure to opiates can lead to intense urges to repeat the first experience, triggering an addiction cycle that is very difficult to break. (The same cycle is true for synthetic stimulants like methamphetamine, cocaine, MDMA, etc)

While there are multiple societal costs from addiction, the problem can be crystallized in a single graph.

Death Rates from Opioid Addiction Are Skyrocketing

Deaths from opioid overdose (both legal & illicit sources) is on track to eclipse 70,000 per year in the U.S., based on current trends:

It’s very possible that by 2018, opioid overdose deaths will be greater than deaths from vehicle accidents and firearms combined.

The path from legal use of prescription pain medications to illicit use of pills, heroin, and fentanyl is a well-worn story that happens across every community and social class.

One example out of many is the fatal opioid overdose by the musician Prince in 2016. Prescribed pain medication after hip surgery in 2010, his need for opiates apparently escalated to the use of fentanyl, a narcotic that is 30 times more powerful than heroin.

New Approaches to Addiction are Needed

Prohibition and interdiction of addictive drugs tend to be stop-gap measures that lose effectiveness over time, especially if consumer demand for the drugs rise or simply remains stable.

There is no silver bullet to the problem. But understanding that addiction is deeply intertwined with the human biological drive for survival is a realistic place to start.

Objective education on the addictive potential of any drug, along with realistic alternatives to opioids for pain relief can begin to turn the tide and lower the demand side of the equation.

Some interesting research is being done to find effective, non-drug approaches to pain relief.

Chronic pain can cause a negative feedback loop with the brain, where the brain “learns” to expect a repetition of pain signals, whether or not the source of pain is still present.

Transcranial Brain Stimulation Devices – TMS, TDCS, TRNS are a class of devices that are being tested in clinical trials for a variety of pain management therapy approaches.

A Fresh Look at Solving Brain Diseases: Alzheimer’s and Dementia

Failed strategies for treating Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia are prompting a broad rethink on how to tackle the growing prevalence of these costly brain health problems.

At the BIO International meeting in San Diego last month there were parallel conversations on these two major brain health challenges – with speakers from the BIO Brain Health Track and Digital Health Summer Summit offering interesting views and potential solutions.

Alzheimer’s Disease: Back to Square One?

Nearly 50 million people globally are living with dementia today, and this number is expected to rise to 100 million people by 2040, according to Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI).

The last drug approved for treating symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease was in 2002. Since then, the pharmaceutical industry has invested billions of dollars in clinical trials to test new compounds that could slow down or stop the disease progression.

All have failed.

The question is then, Why? Having a perfect score in failing indicates a flawed approach to solving the problem and perhaps a flawed understanding of the problem itself.

There are two competing camps in the Alzheimer’s research community – one believes in the amyloid hypothesis, and the other camp firmly believes in tauopathy as the primary driver of the disease.

Both of these approaches attempt to describe the triggers and progression of Alzheimer’s disease, and both are at best incomplete theories, based on the litany of clinical trial blowups tied to these approaches.

The Reality of Combating Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease isn’t a single disease. It’s a broad neurodegenerative condition that includes damage to the micro-vascular network that supplies blood and nutrients to the brain.

Cerebrovascular disease (CVD) is almost always present with Alzheimer’s disease. None of the past Alzheimer’s clinical trials addressed CVD.

A decade or more from now, we will probably see a multiple therapy approach that takes into account a person’s genetic risks, vascular health risks, environmental risks, along with biomarkers that screen for a range of disease sub-types so that treatment can be personalized for every Alzheimer’s patient.

Curious about your risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease? Take the Healthy Brain Test, and learn more about steps you can take to maintain good brain health.

The Drug Pipeline Marches On

Research and drug trials are continuing, including novel approaches that finally break free from the old theories on what causes Alzheimer’s:

Alzheimer’s Drug Development Pipeline in 2016

Special attention should be paid to the progress of non-amyloid/non-tauopathy candidate drugs.

While the number of drugs in the pipeline is encouraging, keep in mind that most of these candidates will struggle to make it past Phase II, and somewhere between none and a few will successfully be brought to market.

Novelty Creates Stronger Memories

How well you learn new information might depend in part on the type of environment you’re in.

Fascinating research from the Duncan Lab at University of Toronto suggests that novelty as a strategy for learning could work as a more reliable and faster way to learn.

Think of the “novelty” learning concept as a more workaday version of flashbulb memories, which constitute vivid, complex memories, typically around emotionally charged events.

A Switch Between Novelty and Familiarity

The University of Toronto researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of human subjects to identify how the brain triggers memory states.

The MRI scans looked at the hippocampus, a part of the brain that’s involved in the processes of both recording new memories and retrieving existing memories.

Novelty detection by the hippocampus primes the brain to learn distinctly new information, and not be distracted by recall of existing memories.

In contrast, recent exposure to a familiar setting helps the hippocampus retrieve existing memories unrelated to new information.

Memory Enhancement Strategies?

This research points to some interesting ideas for enhancing learning strategies – being able to reliably trigger a “state of novelty” in the brain when learning new material could speed the learning curve.

Also, the research findings could offer new methods for rehabilitation and recovery from stroke, concussions, and other brain injuries.

Want to test your short term memory? Try this free visual memory test; a memory performance score is provided after the test.

Diet Soda, Your Health, and Your Brain

Diet soda drinkers take note: people who drink one or more diet sodas every day are at greater risk of stroke and dementia.

More specifically, habitual diet soda drinkers have almost three times the risk of stroke or dementia compared to their diet soda-abstinent peers, according to a research study published in Stroke.

Researchers relied on two large, ongoing cohort studies. The Framingham Heart Study, begun in 1948, is a long-term, ongoing cardiovascular research effort, and the Offspring Cohort, begun in 1971, is a prospective epidemiologic study of the “offspring” from the Framingham group.

With over 10,000 participants from both study groups, researchers identified the strong correlation between habitual diet soda intake and increased risk of stroke and dementia.

The connection between diet soda and dementia deserves a closer look.

Links Between Artificial Sweeteners and Glucose Intolerance

We have previously reported on the link between excess sugar consumption > glucose intolerance > diabetes risk. Having diabetes is highly correlated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

So why would artificial sweeteners also trigger a precursor to diabetes – glucose intolerance? Current research points to one or more possible causes:

1. Synthetic sweeteners are adept at tricking your brain into thinking you’re consuming real sugar with no calories, which can lead to overeating of both artificial and real sugar.

2. Synthetic sweeteners appear to alter the gut microbiome in ways that can lead to insulin resistance, also a precursor to diabetes.

A list of common artificial sweeteners:

  • Acesulfame Potassium – Sunnett, Sweet One
  • Aspartame – Nutrasweet, Equal
  • Saccharin – Sweet ‘N Low, Sweet Twin, Sugar Twin
  • Sucralose – Splenda
  • Stevia/Rebaudioside – Stevia, Truvia, PureVia

Switch to Water and Citrus?

Many people enjoy sodas for the taste and “fizzy” bubbles. As an alternative, try sparkling water with a slice of orange or lemon. Added bonus: citrus fruit flavonoids reduce the risk of ischemic stroke.

Also, download this free guide to the Top 10 Foods For Brain Health.

What 23andMe’s Genetic Test Won’t Tell You About Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

In April 2017, 23andMe received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to sell a genetic health risk test directly to consumers.

The resulting DNA test report contains interesting information on “wellness” traits, such as how quickly one will metabolize caffeine, predispositions to alcohol flush reaction, sleep movement, lactose intolerance, and more.

The 23andMe test also includes a handful of “Genetic Health Risks”, including testing for a risk gene associated with late-onset (after age 65) Alzheimer’s disease. While Alzheimer’s can occur at age 65 or younger, the vast majority of cases happen a decade later or more:

However, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease is a complex picture that can’t be told by a single gene. There are a number of other genes that influence Alzheimer’s risk, along with a person’s health history and lifestyle habits.

A Very Incomplete Story from a Single Gene Test

The 23andMe test for Alzheimer’s risk evaluates the Apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene, and determines whether the submitted DNA reads positive or negative for a specific variant of APOE – namely the E4 variant:

Carrying one or two copies of the APOE/E4 variant can increase the risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

However, the test leaves out other important information about the same gene, such as whether the subject also carries a copy of the APOE/E2 variant, which provides a level of protection against Alzheimer’s disease. Why 23andMe left out this important detail is a mystery.

An addition, there are several (dozens) of other genes that can affect the total genetic risk for Alzheimer’s. Still in the research lab, scientists are developing a polygenic hazard score (PHS) for Alzheimer’s that will evaluate the impact of many genes on risk of developing the disease.

The Other Part Of Alzheimer’s Risk: Environment & Choices

Your genetic profile plays only a part in Alzheimer’s risk. A number of health factors (hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes) and lifestyle habits (food choices, exercise, sleep, etc) can have a large overall effect on either increasing or decreasing risk of Alzheimer’s.

Curious to know more? Try the Healthy Brain Test and get your summary report online.

Are Genetic Counselors the Next Pharmacists?

A final thought on consumer genetics testing. It’s not reasonable to expect everybody to start a crash course in genetics counseling to understand their own results, and the actual number of trained genetics counselors is very small.

A class of health care professionals uniformly spread throughout the country could be trained on the basics of genetics results – the pharmacist model could work here. In the meantime, caveat emptor on DNA consumer kits.