More on genetics and teen smoking. Good info for parents.

Remember that awful Camel cigarettes campaign that included the cartoon “Joe Camel?”  I never smoked Camels, (although my first cigarette was a non-filtered Camel stolen from the back of my grandfather’s Buick) but that cartoon always grossed me out.  I remember one time my friend Jessie pointing out the similarity of his face and a penis. I hadn’t put that together consciously, and maybe not subconsciously either.  Well, at least sex wasn’t turning me away from my Winston Lights.

Shortly after that we heard this from an American Medical Association study:

In 1991, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study showing that by age six nearly as many children could correctly respond that “Joe Camel” was associated with cigarettes as could respond that the Disney Channel logo was associated with Mickey Mouse, and alleged that the “Joe Camel” campaign was targeting children

joe camel

It wasn’t really “news”, we knew that thousands of smokers die every day and have to be replaced with new consumers, and who is stupid enough to start a habit that smells, costs a lot and sends you to an early grave? You guessed it- teenagers.

I don’t think R.J. Reynolds was out there doing genetic studies; there was enough empiric evidence to show that teenagers thought smoking was cool.  All they needed was a little exposure as kids and you basically could Pied Piper them to the corner liquor store.

Results of a recent New Zealand GWAS study shows some evidence that certain genotypes are associated with cigarette addiction, when the smoking was initiated in the teen years.  A GWAS study is a Genome-Wide Association Study. They look at a large number of people, and a lot of genetic variations (we all have them) and see if there is a relationship between the variation and some factor like smoking.  (A simple analogy would be a study of people with Blood Type A, looking at whether they smoke more than people with other blood types.)

This is what they found:

Genetic risk score was unrelated to smoking initiation. However, individuals at higher genetic risk were more likely to convert to daily smoking as teenagers, progressed more rapidly from smoking initiation to heavy smoking, persisted longer in smoking heavily, developed nicotine dependence more frequently, were more reliant on smoking to cope with stress, and were more likely to fail in their cessation attempts. The genetic risk score predicted smoking risk over and above family history.

I personally don’t know many teenagers at present, and not sure if there’s pressure to smoke.  I would think there’s more pressure right now for a teen to get a tattoo than smoke a cigarette, but I think it’s worth it to throw it out there to parents of teens and young kids to think about how they are going to talk to their kids about smoking.  I know from experience that “just say no” doesn’t work.  I had a friend in high school whose dad made a deal to give her $1000 on her 18th birthday if she’d never smoke.  It worked. I’m not suggesting that bribing kids is the way to go, but you know what works for your kids.  It costs a lot to genotype them to find out their risk, but that’s not really necessary.  Talk to them.

The link to the article is here:



Mental illness, substance use raise smoking risk

When I was a kid, I thought it was cool to smoke.  Like most kids, I was impressionable.  Unlike most kids, my parents severely limited access to television*, which meant most of my heroes came from books. Reading The Outsiders (by S.E. Hinton) in the era prior to “Just Say No to Drugs”** led me down the road to ruin.  By my late teens I was a confirmed smoker, and there were times in my twenties when I remember buying two packs a day.  I didn’t ‘really’*** quit until I was in my early forties.  It was difficult and painful, and even with taking Wellbutrin, a known antidepressant; I have never felt emotionally the same as when I was a smoker.

So it’s no surprise to me that mental illness and substance abuse raise the risk of smoking.

Because given no other option, people will self-medicate.  Nicotine’s chemical signature is so similar to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine that once inside the brain it fits a host of chemical locks permitting it direct and indirect control over the flow of more than 200 neuro-chemicals, most importantly dopamine: the primary motivation neurotransmitter.  It is difficult to get health insurance, get an appointment to see a doctor, get a prescription and pay for it to be filled, and remember to take a pill every day. It’s very easy to remember to buy a cheap**** substance at the corner store because nicotine withdrawal symptoms after not smoking for a few hours will motivate you.

We know how dangerous smoking can be, and how difficult to quit. And we know the dangerous toll alcoholism and drug addiction take on society.  So why is it still so difficult to get people the mental health treatment they need in this country?  Yes, that’s a rhetorical question; I know there’s no easy answer. Like Cherry Valance says “It seems like we’re always searching for something to satisfy us, and never finding it.” But it does mean we need to get kids in for evaluation before they have to resort to cigarettes and alcohol to cope with the way they are feeling.cherry

And  it’s not even cool anymore. Like my old boss used to bark at me when I lit up “Why don’t you just go outside and set your shoes on fire!”

*And factor in, when I was kid there were maybe 10 television stations, which actually went off air around 1am.  So compared to now, there wasn’t even much to limit.

**I was part of the Reagan Youth, but I remember opening a box of candy and seeing “Just Say No” written on the inside flap.  I turned to my friend and said, “Makes ya wanna shoot up right now, just to spite them eh?”  I can’t think of a campaign that backfired more.  You have to make drugs seem stupid, not an alternative to authority.

***Social smoking (a political necessity): smoking cigs with friends at clubs, mostly bumming them from real smokers who wished you would just admit you were addicted and go buy your own damn pack

****When I first started smoking, cigarettes cost a dollar a pack. My friend Tom Pitts, ( buy his book here:)

had just moved here from Canada and said he used the pack of cigarettes as a reference to what things cost in American dollars compared to Canadian dollars.  One American dollar= one pack of American cigarettes.

The science of sleep


Here’s a simple experiment you can try at home: for one week, get 8 hours of sleep a night.  The next week, only sleep six hours a night.  Compare how you do on a similar task each week. (might be best to exclude driving and operating heavy machinery for these two weeks)

The hypothesis: most likely you will feel sluggish the second week and won’t perform as well on the same tasks as in the first week.

It’s been shown that sleep deprivation is associated with negative health outcomes, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive impairment.  A recent gene expression study found 711 genes that were affected during sleep loss. Here’s some of their results:

Genes affected by insufficient sleep were associated with circadian rhythms (PER1, PER2, PER3, CRY2, CLOCK, NR1D1, NR1D2, RORA, DEC1, CSNK1E), sleep homeostasis (IL6, STAT3, KCNV2, CAMK2D), oxidative stress (PRDX2, PRDX5), and metabolism (SLC2A3, SLC2A5, GHRL, ABCA1).

Biological processes affected included chromatin modification, gene-expression regulation, macromolecular metabolism, and inflammatory, immune and stress responses.

So, we know that not getting enough sleep is not good for the average person. How about people genetically predisposed to mental illness?  Mood disorders such as anxiety and depression are most likely caused by a small contribution from many different genes. So while sleep is important for everyone’s health, it is even more important for people at risk for any health condition, including mental illness. It can’t hurt to avoid caffeine, get regular exercise and look into relaxation therapies like meditation.

No need to feel guilty for turning off the alarm and getting another hours of sleep.  Doctor’s orders!  Might even be time for new pillow shopping.

Just after I take my nap.

Link to article on sleep:

Image courtesy of debspoons

Well, we’re all related if you go back far enough

Interesting article published about blue eye color, saying the genetic mutation for blue eye color occurred in gene adjacent to OCA2 between 6,000 to 10,000 years old.  So brown eyes have been the dominant paradigm for a long time. Ol’ blue eyes is the new kid on the block.

So much for Hitler’s master race theory.

What I am wondering is could this mutation have only happened once? Some genes are really stable, so if there is a mutation (like in BRCA1) we assume it happened once and was passed down in time.  Some mutations like in NF1 happen often, so a mutation could actually have occurred at conception, what is known as a “de novo” mutation.

OCA2 is on chromosome 15, the gene adjacent therefore should also be on chromosome 15. The studies says that mitochondrial dna was studied from groups in Jordan, Denmark and Turkey. Mitochonodrial dna has a higher mutation rate than nuclear dna, so I’m not sure what rate they are looking at for what gene.

If anyone can shed light on this, let me know.

Link to article here:

Mass media certainly doesn’t make my job any easier

It seems like common sense, but the good people at Johns Hopkins are backing it up with some statistical data.  A recently published study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers revealed:

Mass media news stories about mass shootings involving a shooter with mental illness heighten readers’ negative attitudes toward all persons with serious mental illness. The stigmatization of people with mental illness may lead to a reluctance to seek treatment or raise other barriers to care.

I have been doing research for a grant proposal into why Americans don’t seek help. In the United States, the perceived barriers for young people for mental health help-seeking included stigma and embarrassment, problems recognizing symptoms (poor mental health literacy), and a preference for self-reliance.

As mentioned in my previous post: 3 to 5 % of all violence is committed by people with mental illness.  95% of violent acts are committed by people who are not diagnosed as mentally ill.

Making mass shooters famous does three things

1) Increase stigma for mentally ill people, making them less reluctant to seek treatment

2) Make the general public think that mentally ill people are more dangerous than the general population

3) Make the general public think that funding mental health care will reduce gun violence.

I’ll all for funding more mental health care, but 1) It shouldn’t require a schoolyard of dead children to make it happen 2) It shouldn’t require a reduction in gun violence.

Gun violence in this country occurs because people have access to guns. Funding mental health treatment will result in happier, healthier kids, but won’t stop the 95%.

The link to the article is here:

New Technology Improves On Gene Switching

With a family member battling cancer right now, I understand the importance of turning genes off.  And researchers at UCSF are doing just that:

“CRISPR interference is a simple approach for selectively perturbing gene expression on a genome-wide scale,” said Lei Stanley Qi, PhD, a UCSF Systems Biology Fellow who was the lead author of the Cell study. “This technology is an elegant way to search for any short DNA sequence in the genome, and to then control the expression of the gene where that sequence is located.”

(CRISPR – an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)

“Such a versatile tool could prove valuable in efforts to reprogram cells for regenerative medicine. Lim’s own lab is working on reprogramming immune cells to treat cancer.”

“The idea is to reprogram cells to do the things we want them to do,” Lim said. “We are still unlocking the secrets of the genome to harness the power of cellular reprogramming.”

This has great implications for cancer and for organ and tissue regeneration. If a disease related gene is known, it could be turned on or off.  But will it benefit people with mental illness? (I’m always rooting for the underdog, or at least the underfunded mental health community).

Well, IF we knew what genes caused mental illness, and IF it was related to under or over production of a protein, than this system could help. Or perhaps this could be an alternative to SSRIs- maybe it could increase serotonin production or the serotonin receptor production.

A similar technology- RNAi, or RNA interference was introduced about 10 years ago. The first drug based on this technology,a drug to treat a rare form of high cholesterol, was approved by the FDA in January.  Correcting for how fast technology is advancing today, I would put odds on a drug therapy based on CRISPR to be approved in about 5 years. Most likely for cancer, but other applications won’t be far behind.

University of California – San Francisco. (2013, March 11). “New Technology Improves On Gene Switching.” Medical News Today. Retrieved from

Shared genetics among major psychiatric disorders

An international GWAS study recently published in analyzed genetic data from more than 33,000 people with autism, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder,and compared them with nearly 28,000 people without mental illness.  They identified four spots in the genome that were more common among those with psychiatric disease, two of which occurred in genes involved in communication between brain cell. Genetic risk factors for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia had the most overlap.

Genetic testing for these risk factors to predict mental illness will not be clinically significant at this time since all the genetic variants highlighted are very weak risk factors. But this helps explain mental illness on a biological level and may help find new targets for treatments.

In the future they might be able to fine tune the genetics where some kind of testing could be possible.  But for now, any help with treatment is beneficially, especially if it can tailor drug treatment to decrease side effects and improve drug compliance.

Link to the article can be found here: