Weird Animal Sex

I love all creatures, and I'm entranced by the diversity of how animals and insects look, act and reproduce. Two interesting stories popped up for me today, so I thought I'd share.

14971280454_8943eb3ccd_mFirst is an aquatic flatworm that can fertilize itself -- by injecting sperm into its own head. According to James Gerken of the Huffington Post,

Macrostomum hystrix, a transparent, aquatic, hermaphroditic flatworm, has a "needle-like" reproductive organ it uses to inject sperm into the body of its mate. But it can also stab its own head and self-fertilize. These creatures are simple enough that the sperm can be injected anywhere in the body and reach the eggs.

Steven A. Ramm, lead author of the paper on this, told The Guardian, "To us, it sounds very gruesome."

Must be something wrong with me, because I just thought, "Cool!"

Photo of Macrostomum hystrix from  Lukas Schärer 

 

Next up is the bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps), a popular pet among reptile enthusiasts -- and I am one. Whether a bearded dragon egg turns into a male or female may be determined after the egg is laid -- not by genetics but by the ambient temperatures in which the egg is incubated.

"There are lots of girls running around out there that are genetically male," one scientist told Kerry Grens of The Scientist.

Nature is weird, so no wonder we humans are, too.


How Birth Trauma Affects Mother and Baby Throughout Life

Mike recently shared his story in the comments on my post The Mother/Baby Attachment Gap. Physical trauma during a C-section led to emotional trauma for him and his parents that he still is dealing with.

His back was injured during the cesarean section birth. As I explained in my book, an infant's nervous system develops in part in response to the environment inside the womb, as the baby shares its mother's bloodstream, with whatever stress chemicals or calm chemicals -- including oxytocin -- are flowing through it. There's evidence that the actual birth process "sets" the emotional thermostat by influencing the reactivity of the HPA axis.

The HPA axis is the system composed of the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. Some people react more quickly and more severely to stress than others. This is partly due to genetic predisposition, but also to epigenetics: genes that are "turned on" or "turned off" in response to experience and the environment.

As he entered the world, Mike learned that it's a very dangerous place: People came at him and his mother with knives.

Mike wrote: "I grew up unable to express, accept, or understand love, but I can't blame this entirely, or
perhaps even partially, on the C-section. My mother went into menopause immediately after my birth, and sex became painful for her. My father took this personally and basically lived his life away from home. Both of my parents independently told me they blamed my birth for the destruction of their marriage."

How brutal an experience to grow up like that! My mother couldn't express love and was very angry, but I wasn't forced to bear guilt for her life. I can't imagine what this would be like.

So we see that the physical and emotional trauma of Mike's birth had profound repercussions for his mother's body and emotions, as well as for his father's emotions.

Mike has spent several decades in therapy, which has gotten him to the point where he understands all this and, I hope, is beginning to take steps to heal.

I want to reiterate that we can change our bodies and our brains at any age so that we can begin to experience trust and connection. Sometimes it takes very, very small steps. Working with a therapist who specializes in dealing with birth trauma can be helpful.

Please take a look at the website of the Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health. Some people think the idea of prenatal psychology is woo-woo. I don't. I think what science has learned about epigenetics supports their work.

Mike, I'm rooting for you to keep going on your journey.

 


Is Oxytocin a Pheromone?

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Pheromones are substances that are released by one animal into the environment that other animals take in through the nose or mouth that "communicate" by changing the physiological state of the second animal (bugs, etc).

Animals have something called the vomero nasal organ that is a primary receptor for pheromones. Humans have this organ, but most scientists think it's vestigial. There is evidence that it is not. For example, women living together in dorms tend to have their periods synchronize. This could be due to keeping similar schedules or living in the same environment. But it could be due to them inhaling molecules of each others' hormones.

Oxytocin is both a brain chemical and a hormone. So it is possible that molecules produced in our bodies could be exhaled and then inhaled by other people.

Whether or not this is true, most things that trigger the oxytocin response (a positive social response to another person) probably come via facial expression, body language and tone of voice.

Here's a scientific paper (pretty readable) that examines the evidence that the human vomeronasal organ may be an organ of human communication.

http://chemse.oxfordjournals.org/content/26/4/433.full.pdf+html

The author, Michael Meredith of Florida State University, comes down on the side of no. But we continually find out more about the human body and what makes us tick. Scientists have discovered, for example, that what they used to call "junk DNA" -- because they didn't know what it did -- turns out to influence gene expression.

I think a lot of people, including scientists, get squeamish about the idea of humans sniffing each other like, well, animals. To me, the jury is still out.

PHOTO: Mark Watson


New Diet Plan Uses Oxytocin

8994313260_a2214a9e88_mDiet Doc, an online provider of medical weight loss programs, is offering a new program called the Emotional Eating Diet Plan. It includes inhaled oxytocin as part of the plan.

I spoke to Ryan Shelton, N.D., medical director of Diet Doc, about the plan and why and how Diet Doc is offering oxytocin to dieters in its program. He said that there are 16 or 17 scientific studies that support the use of oxytocin for weight loss. Some used human subjects' diet diaries and emotional surveys to find correlations between emotions like loneliness were correlated with eating more calories, and then saw a change after oxytocin administration.

In the research I scanned, administration of oxytocin reduced the likelihood of eating for pleasure (comfort) without interfering with normal hunger. (See the bottom of this article for a few studies supporting the idea of using oxytocin to help with weight loss.) However, our bodies are complex; note that in the study "Divergent Effects of Oxytocin Treatment of Obese Diabetic Mice," oxytocin seemed to increase insulin resistance, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Shelton told me that Diet Doc did not start out to create a diet plan that included oxytocin. Instead, he said, "The Emotional Eating Diet Plan was devised first, then we started looking at outside agents, natural and herbal or pharmaceutical, to complement the actual diet."

Assessment forms on the Diet Doc website help site visitors and Diet Doc personnel identify what type of overeater they might be. In addition to emotional eaters, the company has plans for sugar cravers and people whose weight loss has gotten stuck. Diet plans typically include consultations with doctors, supplements, prescription drugs, food plans and exercise regimes.

Prescriptions for inhaled oxytocin are provided through compounding pharmacies; these are pharmacies that can produce drugs in forms or doses different from how they are typically prescribed.

Diet Doc doesn't provide statistics about patient results, but it emphasizes that people have to follow their prescribed programs for quite a while. Shelton said, "We're interested in sustainable weight loss. We have no problem helping people shed 15 or 20 pounds -- that's quite easy. We're interested in helping them achieve those goals while implementing long-term strategies of promoting health and wellness -- keeping that weight off. The weight issue is secondary to more important therapeutic goals, insuring a healthier lifestyle, movement and healthy nutritional intake."

Does this mean that someone who succeeds in shedding pounds via the Emotional Eating Diet Plan will have to keep taking oxytocin for the rest of his or her life? Not at all, he said. "The goal is to achieve certain therapeutic parameters. We try as best we can to implement strategies that, when in place, are not dependent on external agents, medications or supplements."

He acknowledged that there's no information on the possible side effects of long-term dosing with oxytocin. The first experimental oxytocin therapies began only about 10 years ago.

There are some very important things to note about the Diet Docs approach:

  • Dieters are working under a doctor's personal supervision.
  • Oxytocin is sold via a doctor's prescription only.
  • Diet plans are customized for individuals.
  • Oxytocin is only one part of the diet plan; the Emotional Eating Plan also may include other supplements and/or drugs, as well as, most important, decreased food intake and exercise.
  • Diet Docs says that oxytocin isn't appropriate for all dieters.

In short, oxytocin is not a magic weight-loss potion. For people who eat for comfort, to reduce stress or cope with feelings of isolation or loneliness, it may really help.

It's also interesting to note that this is still another case of private companies applying scientific research to product development without going through all the hoops of getting FDA approval or doing clinical trials. Diet Doc's prescribing oxytocin is legal: Physicians are allowed to prescribe FDA-approved drugs for uses other than that for which they've been approved. This is called off-label prescribing. The company is, in effect, conducting its own, private clinical trial.

I haven't tried Diet Doc, nor am I endorsing them. I'm not an affiliate marketer for the company; I write about oxytocin therapies of all kinds on this blog. To find out more about the Diet Doc Emotional Eating Diet  Plan, follow the link.

PHOTO: Mayan Brenn

A few studies:

Peripheral oxytocin suppresses food intake and causes weight loss in diet-induced obese rats. Gregory J. Morton , Brendan S. Thatcher , Roger D. Reidelberger , Kayoko Ogimoto , Tami Wolden-Hanson , Denis G. Baskin , Michael W. Schwartz , James E. Blevins. American Journal of Physiology - Endocrinology and Metabolism Published 1 January 2012 Vol. 302 no.  1,  E134-E144 DOI: 10.1152/ajpendo.00296.2011.

Divergent Effects of Oxytocin Treatment of Obese Diabetic Mice on Adiposity and Diabetes. Altirriba Gutierrez, Jorge et al. Published in  Endocrinology. 2014, vol. n.a., p. en20141466 

Sex Hormone Lessens Snacking. Meredith Knight. Scientific American Mind 25, 11 (2014). Published online: 13 February 2014 | doi:10.1038/scientificamericanmind0314-11a (subscription access only)

Oxytocin, Feeding, and Satiety. Nancy Sabatier et al. Front Endocrinology (Lausanne). 2013; 4: 35. Published online Mar 20, 2013. Prepublished online Nov 22, 2012.  doi:  10.3389/fendo.2013.00035

 


Oxytocin Injection: a Personal Experience

Oxytocin bowtie Sprechter

The latest news about oxytocin is that it helped regenerate muscle tissue in old mice. This is not so surprising; while most of the excitement about oxytocin is around its influence as a neurochemical on our emotions and thoughts, it's also a hormone that travels through the bloodstream and helps regulate many bodily functions.

A study led by Irini Conboy at UC Berkeley found that circulating oxytocin can help repair muscles, reducing the muscle wasting, or sarcopenia, that comes with aging. Daily subcutaneous injections of oxytocin allowed the older mice to repair muscle injuries as fast as the younger ones did.

The study was published June 10 in Nature.

I have an acquaintance who's struggled with fibromyalgia for most of his life. He's working with a naturopath who is able to prescribe drugs and is willing to help him experiment with treatments. He recently tried oxytocin injections. I asked him to write me about his experience, and here's what he says:

I injected 1 ml (10 units) of oxytocin subcutaneously, for a couple of months, as an experiment. I found that it raised my mood and gave me energy, which jibes with the article's conclusions. I stopped using it because oxytocin is only manufactured in small vials suitable for one-time use. For daily use, a bigger vial that can use a vial adapter would be required.

Oxytocin is quite expensive, and, unlike drugs like insulin which are packaged to be drawn out with a sterile needle over and over, the vials my friend got from the pharmacy were more than he needed for a single injection, but they could not be resealed.

People frequently ask me how to get oxytocin, and I always tell them to find a healthcare professional who will work with them, so my friend's experience is a good example of how the relationship with a medical provider can work. Unfortunately, it also points up a big issue with using oxytocin off-label.

PHOTO: Speicher Tie Co.


Why Vitamin D Could Prevent Autism

Researchers have noticed a link between Vitamin D and ASD for years. A new study explains how a lack of the vitamin could lead to problems in fetal and neonatal brain development, creating the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder.
 
Rhonda Patrick and Bruce Ames of Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute showed that vitamin D is essential for the synthesis of serotonin in the brain. They also show that it may be important for the making the precursor to oxytocin, as well as for the formation of the oxytocin receptor and vasopressin receptors. All three of these chemicals, which are both neurotransmitters and hormones that regulate body functions, are crucial for social behavior.
 
What Patrick's and Ames's study adds is an explanation for just how the lack of Vitamin D "turns off" serotonin production:
 
Vitamin D activates the gene that makes an enzyme that converts tryptophan into serotonin in the fetal brain.
 
Serotonin in the fetal and neonatal brain influences the structure and wiring of the brain.
 
Serotonin also acts as a neurotransmitter.
 
In the post-natal brain, serotonin affects social behavior.
 
In other words, Patrick says, "In order to make the hormone, you have to make this protein first." And it's vitamin D that allows the body to make the proteins that in turn create oxytocin, vasopressin and serotonin.
 
Patrick thinks the lack of enough serotonin in the fetal and neonatal brain could cause it to form in a way that causes the symptoms of ASD. She says, "During early fetal development, serotonin is a brain morphogen -- it's a growth factor for the brain. It guides the structure and some of the way that the neuronal connections are made."
 
Even before the fetal brain begins making its own serotonin, she adds, serotonin from the mother's body enters the fetus through the placenta and guides some brain development. Therefore, a vitamin D deficiency in the mother could also cause ASD.
 
In 2009, Swedish researchers studying the rise in autism spectrum disorder among Somali immigrants posited that it was because the dark-skinned immigrants weren't producing enough Vitamin D when exposed to the weak northern sun. (In fact, the Somali Swedes called autism "the Swedish disease.")

 
Deficits in oxytocin and vasopressin have also been linked to ASD, and Patrick thinks that, if the genes to produce their precursor proteins have similar responses to Vitamin D, it's possible that these two neurochemicals also are part of the puzzle. But this paper focuses on serotonin and its precursor, the essential amino acid tryptophan.
 
Patrick says that it's easy to create a temporary deficit of tryptophan in humans, and studies in the lab have shown that people whose tryptophan is depleted begin to have trouble decoding people's facial expressions, a prime symptom of autism.
 
Meanwhile, preventing autism could be as simple as adequate vitamin D supplementation for pregnant and nursing women and making sure young children have adequate levels of vitamin D. The paper concludes, "Supplementation with vitamin D and tryptophan would be a practical and affordable solution to help prevent autism and possibly ameliorate some symptoms of the disorder."
 
While people over 60 are commonly tested by their doctors to make sure they have adequate levels of vitamin D, Patrick thinks this should also be standard for pregnant women. "I think it needs to be up there with folic acid in terms of prenatal care," she says.
 
For parents looking for help now, Patrick says, "I wouldn’t rush out and give a child high doses of tryptophan. I certainly would get the vitamin D levels tested; it's a very simple test to do."
 
CHORI is beginning clinical trials looking at the effects of micronutrients on diseases. Patrick also is working with organizations involved in ASD research and treatment to design clinical trials to see if vitamin D could reduce autism symptoms. Patrick and Ames will set up a website to act as a resource for parents of children with ASD. They also hope to do clinical trials. To find out whether Patrick and Ames will start testing of kids with ASD or clinical trials of the vitamin to ameliorate symptoms, keep an eye on BruceAmes.org.

For more details about the study, read the Science Daily article.

PHOTO: HealthGauge
 


Chile and Argentina Test Oxytocin for Chronic Migraine

Trigemina, a company focused on creating non-narcotic pain relief drugs, is enrolling patients in a Phase II clinical trial of inhaled oxytocin to treat chronic migraine. Trigemina's oxytocin product, known as T1-001 (no doubt to be renamed to something lyrical if it comes to market), has already shown promising results in preliminary studies, the company says.

This use makes perfect sense: Oxytocin is a general analgesic (pain reducer), and it also contributes to relaxation and healing.

It's notable that Trigemina specializes in inhalant drugs, and it has a proprietary formulation of oxytocin. Without some market angle, there's little incentive for companies to develop oxytocin-based drugs.

If and when this comes to market, I can see it being prescribed off-label for all kinds of things, including   persistent genital arousal disorder (PGAD) and fibromyalgia.

 


Love Everyone?

We tend to think of bonding and love as deep emotions to be shared with a few. This interview about a positive psychologist reminds us that we can get an oxytocin boost almost any time by making a quick, warm connection. From the story:

In her new book Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., suggests that true love isn't just about romance, companionship, or fondness; fundamentally, it springs from something she calls "micromoments of shared positive emotion."


Men May Be Chemically Wired to Avoid Adultery with Friends' Wives

4937497680_da787d80b4_mA University of Missouri study found that the testosterone levels of men dropped when they interacted with the wife of a close friend.

What does this mean? Testosterone is the chemical of sexual desire and aggression in both men and women. Men's T-levels tend to rise when they're around a potential sex partner -- as well as when they're around the mate of their enemy. Interesting, no?

Extrapolating, the researchers think that this mechanism may have evolved to help social cooperation in villages. According to the press release, Lead researcher Mark Flinn says, "… our findings suggest that men's minds have evolved to foster a situation where the stable pair bonds of friends are respected. … Ultimately, our findings about testosterone levels illuminate how people have evolved to form alliances. Using that biological understanding of human nature, we can look for ways to solve global problems."

The study "Hormonal Mechanisms for Regulation of Aggression in Human Coalitions" was published in the journal Human Nature. Co-authors were Davide Ponzi of MU's Division of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Science and Michael Muehlenbein of Indiana University.

PHOTO: Steve Roades


College Settles with Woman Denied Comfort Guinea Pig

4257331059_a2d5f0bd2b_qKendra Velzen received $40,000 from Grand Valley State University because her school refused to let her carry her pet guinea pig everywhere on campus.  The 28-year-oldVelzen suffers from depression and uses a pacemaker. Grand Valley State let her keep her pet in the dorm, but barred it from some places including the cafeteria.

I blogged about Velzen's case when she first brought it. Those of us who depend on pets for comfort tend to be on her side; other people think it's ridiculous or even offensive to have animals around.

The story was picked up by Gawker, a site dedicated to snark. So it's not surprising that it and the comments are pretty mean.

Whether you choose to read the original news article or Gawker could say something about whether you like to be kind or not. Think about it.