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Maria Haverstock, a participant in the Oakland study, became homeless at 58 when she could not find work after leaving an abusive partner.

When Serggio Lanata moved to San Francisco in 2013, he was stunned by its sprawling tent cities. “Homelessness was everywhere I looked,” he says. Lanata, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), was also struck by similarities in the behaviour of some older homeless people and patients he had treated for dementia in the clinic. Now, years later, he is embarking on a study that will examine homeless adults for early signs of Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative brain disorders to better understand the interplay between these conditions and life on the street.

The work, which is set to begin next month, ties into an ongoing effort by researchers at UCSF to understand the biological effects of homelessness in older people. Since 2013, a team led by Margot Kushel, director of the university’s Center for Vulnerable Populations, has followed a group of about 350 older homeless adults in Oakland, California, to determine why this group ages in hyper-speed. Although the participants’ average age is 57, they experience strokes, falls, visual impairment and urinary incontinence at rates typical of US residents in their late 70s and 80s.

The research has drawn attention from politicians, economists and health-care providers across the country who are struggling to help the homeless and reduce their numbers. Although homelessness is a global problem, the situation in California is particularly acute. Nearly 70% of the 130,000 people without homes in the state are considered to be ‘unsheltered’, living on the streets or in locations unfit for human habitation, compared with just 5% in New York City. In the San Francisco Bay Area — California’s wealthy technology hub, which includes Silicon Valley — roughly 28,200 people are homeless.


Homeless encampments, like this one in Oakland, California, are a familiar site in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The United States’ homeless population is also greying: rising housing prices in many areas have increased the rate of homelessness among ‘baby boomers’ born between 1954 and 1964. But many hospitals, police and homeless shelters are unprepared to deal with the special needs of an ageing homeless population. “I hear from shelter providers, ‘Gosh, we are set up for people who use drugs but we have no idea how to manage dementia’,” Kushel says. By understanding how homelessness can accelerate ageing, her team hopes to identify ways to curb suffering and save governments money.

“This crisis is upon us,” says Dennis Culhane, a social scientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “A lot of money will be spent on this population. We can draw upon Margot’s data and learn how to spend that money wisely — or else we’ll just spend and still have lots of human misery.”

He and his colleagues estimate that Los Angeles, California, will spend $621 million annually on emergency medical care, nursing home beds and shelters for homeless people over the age of 55 between 2019 and 2030. Their analysis suggests that the city could reduce its spending by $33 million per year if it provided homes to elderly people who lack them.

A closer look

Researchers have known for decades that physical and mental health problems are prevalent among the homeless (see ‘Declining health’). But there was little systematic research on the progression and causes of their ailments in 2013, when Kushel launched a study on the life trajectories of older homeless adults in the Bay Area. Since then, 42 of the initial 350 participants have died — mainly from cancer, heart attacks and diabetes. (Earlier this year, the study enrolled another 100 people to compensate for the loss of original participants.)

Kushel and her colleagues got a boost on 1 May, when philanthropists Marc and Lynne Benioff announced that they had donated US$30 million to create a research initiative at UCSF on homelessness. Marc Benioff, who founded the San Francisco-based computing company Salesforce, says the money will support research to explore the causes of homelessness and identify ways to prevent it.

Lanata’s study, which is set to begin next month, will look for signs of debilitating brain conditions — such as dementia of the frontal and temporal lobes, which can cause behavioural changes — in at least 20 homeless adults. He and his colleagues will conduct neurological exams, which might include brain scans, on participants to learn how homelessness influences these brain disorders. People living on the streets might face several factors that can contribute to neurological disease, Lanata says, such as lack of sleep, exposure to polluted air near highways, poorly controlled diabetes, high blood pressure and alcohol abuse.

By asking study participants about their personal histories, he also hopes to learn whether neurological issues might have helped to put them on the street — perhaps by impairing their ability to work or seek government assistance. That would make sense to him, given his experience treating people with some types of dementia. “If those patients didn’t have strong family support, they would be homeless, since no one could or would care for them,” Lanata says. “They can be hard to handle.”

And Kushel has begun a new phase of her ongoing study, which will explore how the sudden stress of homelessness might trigger or exacerbate existing conditions. Many of the people in her study were over the age of 50 when they became homeless.


Kimberly Lea (left) greets Vernada Jones, who is recovering from a gunshot wound to the face. Both women are participating in the Oakland study.

Nearly half of the participants exhibit signs of extreme loneliness, which has been linked to poor outcomes in people with cancer and other diseases1. One-quarter of those in the study meet the criteria for cognitive impairment, compared with less than 10% among people over the age of 70 in the United States more generally2. And in a paper in the press, Kushel and her colleagues found that 10% of participants report being physically or sexually assaulted at least every six months.

An increasing toll

Although Culhane and other health economists have already begun to use Kushel’s findings to project how much it costs to care for the indigent, it is not clear whether politicians or the public will accept such suggestions.

California Governor Gavin Newsom included $500 million for shelters and other support facilities in his proposed $209 billion state budget for 2019–20. But in late March, San Francisco residents rapidly met their goal of raising more than $100,000 to block the construction of a homeless shelter in a wealthy, waterfront neighbourhood. And although city voters approved a plan in November 2018 to fund services for the homeless by taxing the San Francisco’s biggest companies, business groups are challenging the policy in court.

Coco Auerswald, a public-health researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, hopes that Kushel’s work and other studies of homelessness strike a moral nerve. “You judge a society on how it treats its most vulnerable,” she says. “My fear is that we will accept this as a state of affairs in our country.”

Nature 569, 467-468 (2019)

References
1.
Patanwala, M. et al. J. Gen. Intern. Med. 33, 635–643 (2018).

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By KATIE KINDELAN

Michael Watson, 18, battled his weight his entire life but decided to make a lasting change when he looked in a mirror his sophomore year of high school.

“When I looked in the mirror I was really ready to get it done and thought, ‘I can’t just fail anymore on my diet,’” Watson said. “I need to actually do this.”

Watson, now a high school senior in Canton, Ohio, started by walking to and from school every day, more than 40 minutes round trip.

He walked to school every day of his junior year, no matter whether it was hot, raining or snowing.

“When I took the bus to school, I’d want to sit by a kid and they’d say, ‘No, go sit somewhere else because I was so big,’” Watson recalled. “When I started walking, I didn’t even know what time the bus came and that was my motivation, ‘I have to walk.’”

Watson also changed his diet, working with his dad to learn how to count calories and then forgoing his normal fast food meals for salads, oatmeal and soup.

“It was extremely hard, especially at first,” said Watson, who also worked at a local Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant during his weight loss. “What motivated me was stepping on the scale.”

“I’d see that I was 290 [pounds] and say, ‘Let’s get to 280, come on Michael, you got this,’” he said.

Watson started at his highest weight of 325 pounds. He now weighs 210 pounds, achieving a 115 pound weight loss.

In addition to walking, Watson now lifts weights in a home gym he created in his family’s garage.

“I lost a lot of my insecurities when I lost all that weight,” he said. “You work for it and you get it, so it feels amazing for sure.”

Watson’s father, Jim Watson, said he notices his son walk around now with “more confidence,” allowing him to show his “funny and outgoing” personality to more people.

Watson’s accomplishment caught the attention of his classmates and teachers at McKinley Senior High School, from which he will graduate later this month.

“His story stuck with me,” said Terrance Jones, a family support specialist at McKinley who nominated Watson for the school’s “Senior Limelight” recognition.

“Michael is a young man who aspired to be able to be a better person for himself. We’re not talking about athletic accomplishments or academic accomplishments, this is a personal development success,” he said. “We need to pay more attention to personal development successes with students.”

Watson plans to find a full-time job after graduation, possibly in the food industry. He studied in his school’s culinary program during his weight loss and credits his teacher in the program with helping him learn more about healthier food choices and cooking.

“I hope I can be an inspiration to others,” Watson said, adding that he achieved his weight loss by reminding himself that “every day is a new day.”

“That’s what I said on my diet all the time because I’d mess up some days,” he said. “I’d tell myself, ‘Tomorrow is a new day. You’ve’ got to start over and eat the oatmeal in the morning.”

https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Wellness/high-school-senior-loses-115-pounds-walking-school/story?id=63047775


Brains of individuals with PTSD and suicidal thoughts (top) show higher levels of mGluR5 compared to healthy controls (bottom).

By Bill Hathawaymay

The risk of suicide among individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is much higher than the general population, but identifying those individuals at greatest risk has been difficult. However, a team at Yale has discovered a biological marker linked to individuals with PTSD who are most likely to think about suicide, the researchers report May 13 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers used PET imaging to measure levels of metabotropic glutamatergic receptor 5 (mGluR5) — which has been implicated in anxiety and mood disorders — in individuals with PTSD and major depressive disorder. They found high levels of mGluR5 in the PTSD group with current suicidal thoughts. They found no such elevated levels in the PTSD group with no suicidal thoughts or in those with depression, with or without current suicidal thoughts.

There are two FDA approved treatments for PTSD, both of which are anti-depressants. It can take weeks or months to determine whether they are effective. That can be too late for those who are suicidal, note the researchers.

“If you have people who suffer from high blood pressure, you want to reduce those levels right away,” said Irina Esterlis, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale and senior author of the study. “We don’t have that option with PTSD.”

Esterlis said testing for levels of mGluR5 in people who have experienced severe trauma might help identify those at greatest risk of harming themselves and prompt psychiatric interventions. Also, researchers might investigate ways to regulate levels mGluR5 with hopes of minimizing suicide risk in PTSD patients, she said.

https://news.yale.edu/2019/05/13/biomarker-reveals-ptsd-sufferers-risk-suicide

A large proportion of graduate students and postdocs ghostwrite peer reviews for senior colleagues and supervisors, receiving no professional credit for their work, finds a study1.

Co-authors of the article, which was posted on the preprint server bioRxiv on 26 April, surveyed 498 early-career researchers at institutions in the United States (74%), Europe (17%), Asia (4%) and elsewhere to assess how often junior scientists contribute to such reports and how they feel about them. Half of survey respondents said that they had ghostwritten a peer review, but 80% of those said that they felt the practice was unethical, according to the article.

The survey took pains to distinguish ghostwriting from co-reviewing, a well-established form of training in which an invited reviewer shares a manuscript with junior researchers to solicit their assessment of the paper’s quality; those researchers can expect to receive some type of credit for their efforts. With ghostwriting, by contrast, a principal investigator (PI) uses part or all of a junior researcher’s review contributions and provides no credit. Roughly 75% of survey respondents said that they had co-reviewed; 95% found it to be a beneficial practice and 73% deemed it ethical.

“Co-reviewing and ghostwriting get conflated, and one is used to justify the other as a normal part of training,” says study co-author Rebeccah Lijek, a molecular biologist at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. “But they are separable; some can be done as training exercises and some deserve named credit.” She says that senior researchers have expressed disbelief that ghostwriting is a widespread practice, whereas early-career researchers in the study indicated no surprise at all.

Sabina Alam, associate editorial director of medicine and health journals for Taylor & Francis Group, an academic publisher based near Oxford, UK, was also unsurprised. As journal editors, she says, “we know it happens.” Alam adds that she was pleased to finally see data quantifying the practice. “This form of ghostwriting has to be brought out of the shadows,” she says. “Not knowing who has had a hand in writing the review is totally unethical. It’s a system we’ve allowed to continue for too long.”

Alam notes that ghostwriting breaches the confidentiality of peer review. “Editors make publishing decisions based on reviews and on an understanding that the person they invited wrote the review,” she says. And journal editors make great efforts to find the most appropriate manuscript reviewers; they do not expect reviewers to share manuscripts, unless the journal explicitly says that it is acceptable for a colleague to co-review. Both co-reviewing and ghostwriting can pose ethical issues beyond the absence of credit, she adds. “If a researcher wants to co-review, let the editors know — preferably before you ask a junior colleague — so we can make sure the person is a good fit, free of conflicts of interest.”

Ethical line
David Resnik, a bioethicist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, says that ghostwriting can even be considered a form of plagiarism. “Under the federal research regulations, misconduct applies not only to publishing research but also reviewing research,” he notes.

Beyond misrepresentation, the lack of academic credit short-changes the junior researcher or ghostwriter in intangible ways. For example, peer review gives early-career scientists an opportunity to become known to journal editors, says Resnik. Reviewing papers, he adds, can build a graduate student’s or postdoc’s reputation; it can lead to an invitation to join a journal’s editorial board, and can serve as a form of networking that can help to advance a career. “The idea that credit for peer review is not important doesn’t stand up to scrutiny,” says Resnik. Alam agrees: “This is scholarly work at the end of the day, and should be recognized,” she says.

The report laments that there is “no systematic way of training people to do peer review”. Yet it is pivotal to the scientific enterprise, notes co-author Gary McDowell, executive director of Future of Research, an advocacy group for junior researchers that is based in Abington, Massachusetts. “We need more establishment of best practices of peer review,” adds Resnik. “Peer review is one of the most important aspects of scientific research [and it] just does not get enough attention in terms of ethics, objectivity and fairness.”

Alam says that the study could help to catalyse long-needed changes to the peer-review process. Both she and Resnik agree with the study’s recommendation that journals revise their policies to explicitly ask for the names of co-review contributors. McDowell suggests that greater transparency would benefit the scientific enterprise as a whole — for example, by legitimately increasing the pool of reviewers, who are often in short supply. “Journals are going to have graduate students and postdocs doing this regardless; they just won’t be known,” says McDowell.

McDowell and Lijek encourage PIs and early-career researchers to clearly discuss their expectations regarding co-reviewed reports and the apportioning of credit. Resnik agrees: “I would advise PIs to not involve other people in the review of a paper without permission from the editors, and without a clear understanding from the person involved about how they will be credited for their work.”

Alam advises early-career researchers who are eager to write peer reviews to ask their PI for opportunities to do so, as well as for feedback on their efforts; they should also ask their PI to let journals know about their contributions. Then, she says, junior researchers should take necessary steps to verify their contributions on Publons, an online database through which academics can track and highlight their peer-review and editorial contributions. That way, the junior researchers can build their profiles as peer reviewers.

Lijek says she hopes that this study will arm junior researchers with evidence that they can use to advocate for credit for their contributions. “It may sound cheesy and naive, but we want peer review to be the best it can be,” she says. Ultimately, she says, the problem can be resolved. “We all agree — we need to fix it.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01533-8

References

McDowell, G. S., Knutsen, J., Graham, J., Oelker, S. K. & Lijek, R. S. Preprint at bioRxiv https://doi.org/10.1101/617373 (2019).

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01533-8?utm_source=Nature+Briefing&utm_campaign=9f8bbd0a81-briefing-dy-20190515&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c9dfd39373-9f8bbd0a81-44039353

Artificial intelligence can share our natural ability to make numeric snap judgments.

Researchers observed this knack for numbers in a computer model composed of virtual brain cells, or neurons, called an artificial neural network. After being trained merely to identify objects in images — a common task for AI — the network developed virtual neurons that respond to specific quantities. These artificial neurons are reminiscent of the “number neurons” thought to give humans, birds, bees and other creatures the innate ability to estimate the number of items in a set (SN: 7/7/18, p. 7). This intuition is known as number sense.

In number-judging tasks, the AI demonstrated a number sense similar to humans and animals, researchers report online May 8 in Science Advances. This finding lends insight into what AI can learn without explicit instruction, and may prove interesting for scientists studying how number sensitivity arises in animals.

Neurobiologist Andreas Nieder of the University of Tübingen in Germany and colleagues used a library of about 1.2 million labeled images to teach an artificial neural network to recognize objects such as animals and vehicles in pictures. The researchers then presented the AI with dot patterns containing one to 30 dots and recorded how various virtual neurons responded.

Some neurons were more active when viewing patterns with specific numbers of dots. For instance, some neurons activated strongly when shown two dots but not 20, and vice versa. The degree to which these neurons preferred certain numbers was nearly identical to previous data from the neurons of monkeys.

Dot detectors
A new artificial intelligence program viewed images of dots previously shown to monkeys, including images with one dot and images with even numbers of dots from 2 to 30 (bottom). Much like the number-sensitive neurons in monkey brains, number-sensitive virtual neurons in the AI preferentially activated when shown specific numbers of dots. As in monkey brains, the AI contained more neurons tuned to smaller numbers than larger numbers (top).

To test whether the AI’s number neurons equipped it with an animal-like number sense, Nieder’s team presented pairs of dot patterns and asked whether the patterns contained the same number of dots. The AI was correct 81 percent of the time, performing about as well as humans and monkeys do on similar matching tasks. Like humans and other animals, the AI struggled to differentiate between patterns that had very similar numbers of dots, and between patterns that had many dots (SN: 12/10/16, p. 22).

This finding is a “very nice demonstration” of how AI can pick up multiple skills while training for a specific task, says Elias Issa, a neuroscientist at Columbia University not involved in the work. But exactly how and why number sense arose within this artificial neural network is still unclear, he says.

Nieder and colleagues argue that the emergence of number sense in AI might help biologists understand how human babies and wild animals get a number sense without being taught to count. Perhaps basic number sensitivity “is wired into the architecture of our visual system,” Nieder says.

Ivilin Stoianov, a computational neuroscientist at the Italian National Research Council in Padova, is not convinced that such a direct parallel exists between the number sense in this AI and that in animal brains. This AI learned to “see” by studying many labeled pictures, which is not how babies and wild animals learn to make sense of the world. Future experiments could explore whether similar number neurons emerge in AI systems that more closely mimic how biological brains learn, like those that use reinforcement learning, Stoianov says (SN: 12/8/18, p. 14).

https://www.sciencenews.org/article/new-ai-acquired-humanlike-number-sense-its-own

by MARY JO DILONARDO

I’ve never met some of my friends. I work virtually, so I interact with my coworkers on daily conference calls. At least one I’ve never met in person, yet often he’s the first voice I hear every day. We talk about our dogs and our jobs, the weather and our families.

Similarly, I know lots of people in rescue who I interact with via social media. We send messages back and forth about dogs that need help or training tips. I’ll never meet many of them or even talk with them on the phone. But they still play a key part of my life.

It’s easy to believe that the friends who really matter are your BFFs — the ones you open your soul to about your hopes, dreams and failures or the friends you’ve had since high school. But a recent story in The New York Times points out that you also need a network of low-stakes, casual friendships. These lightweight liaisons offer all sorts of benefits. The more you have, the more connected you’ll feel to your community and the less lonely you’ll feel.

Why ‘weak ties’ make you strong
Sociologist Mark S. Granovetter of Johns Hopkins University refers to these casual relationships as “weak ties.” His research found that weak ties can help people build bridges, for example assisting them find jobs and other connections. They can also help them feel more involved in the community by having links to social groups.

Weak ties or these peripheral relationships can include parents in the school carpool line, the cashier at the grocery store, and neighbors you meet when you walk your dog.

A 2014 study found that although these casual interactions might not seem very helpful, they actually benefit your social and emotional well-being.

Talking to people you meet throughout the day when you’re running errands or working also expands not just your social circle, but your worldview, the Times story points out. You’re chatting with people who might not have everything in common with you, but still becoming richer from the interaction.

In addition, by asking questions of your hairstylist or your neighbor, you’re learning more about them than your likely first impression. That changes your view of them and, from that, alters your view of the bigger picture around you.

Fewer friends as we age

Young adults amass lots of friends but by the mid-20s when responsibilities increase and free time dwindles, so does the number of friendships. As we get older, we no longer have the need to be out with friends all the time. But that doesn’t mean we don’t still benefit from relationships — even super-casual ones.

Gillian Sandstrom, a senior lecturer of psychology at the University of Essex, studies social interactions. She found that sustaining these minor connections keeps us involved in the community, particularly after a move away from close friends and family or after the loss of a loved one.

“A lot of us think it’s not worth our time to have those kinds of interactions, that they can’t possibly provide any meaning,” Sandstrom tells the Times. “We’re focused on whatever is next and we don’t stop and take that second to enjoy the moment.”

How to make more friends

If you don’t normally chat to the people around you, you may want to start.

Experts suggest taking the time to talk to people you might normally overlook. Instead of just thanking a waiter or clerk, strike up a conversation. Make a point to talk to a familiar, friendly face you see often at the gym or when you walk in the park.

Don’t just ask about the weather or some generic, “How’s your day going?” Take time to get to know that person so the exchange and relationship becomes more meaningful for both of you. The more often you chat and the more involved the discussion becomes, the more likely a friendship of some sort will blossom.

https://www.mnn.com/health/fitness-well-being/stories/why-you-need-bunch-acquaintances-not-just-bffs?utm_source=Weekly+Newsletter&utm_campaign=0b6acd8a4f-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_MON0513_2019&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_fcbff2e256-0b6acd8a4f-40844241


In a series of recently published studies using animals and people, Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers say they have further characterized a set of chemical imbalances in the brains of people with schizophrenia related to the chemical glutamate. And they figured out how to tweak the level using a compound derived from broccoli sprouts.

In a series of recently published studies using animals and people, Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers say they have further characterized a set of chemical imbalances in the brains of people with schizophrenia related to the chemical glutamate. And they figured out how to tweak the level using a compound derived from broccoli sprouts.

They say the results advance the hope that supplementing with broccoli sprout extract, which contains high levels of the chemical sulforaphane, may someday provide a way to lower the doses of traditional antipsychotic medicines needed to manage schizophrenia symptoms, thus reducing unwanted side effects of the medicines.

“It’s possible that future studies could show sulforaphane to be a safe supplement to give people at risk of developing schizophrenia as a way to prevent, delay or blunt the onset of symptoms,” adds Akira Sawa, M.D., Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of the Johns Hopkins Schizophrenia Center.

Schizophrenia is marked by hallucinations, delusions and disordered thinking, feeling, behavior, perception and speaking. Drugs used to treat schizophrenia don’t work completely for everyone, and they can cause a variety of undesirable side effects, including metabolic problems increasing cardiovascular risk, involuntary movements, restlessness, stiffness and “the shakes.”

In a study described in the Jan. 9 edition of the journal JAMA Psychiatry, the researchers looked for differences in brain metabolism between people with schizophrenia and healthy controls. They recruited 81 people from the Johns Hopkins Schizophrenia Center within 24 months of their first psychosis episode, which can be a characteristic symptom of schizophrenia, as well as 91 healthy controls from the community. The participants were an average of 22 years old, and 58% were men.

The researchers used a powerful magnet to measure and compare five regions in the brain between the people with and without psychosis. A computer analysis of 7-Tesla magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) data identified individual chemical metabolites and their quantities.

The researchers found on average 4% significantly lower levels of the brain chemical glutamate in the anterior cingulate cortex region of the brain in people with psychosis compared to healthy people.

Glutamate is known for its role in sending messages between brain cells, and has been linked to depression and schizophrenia, so these findings added to evidence that glutamate levels have a role in schizophrenia.

Additionally, the researchers found a significant reduction of 3% of the chemical glutathione in the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex and 8% in the thalamus. Glutathione is made of three smaller molecules, and one of them is glutamate.

Next, the researchers asked how glutamate might be managed in the brain and whether that management is faulty in disease. They first looked at how it’s stored. Because glutamate is a building block of glutathione, the researchers wondered if the brain might use glutathione as a way to store extra glutamate. And if so, the researchers questioned if they could use known drugs to shift this balance to either release glutamate from storage when there isn’t enough, or send it into storage if there is too much.

In another study, described in the Feb. 12 issue of the journal PNAS, the team used the drug L-Buthionine sulfoximine in rat brain cells to block an enzyme that turns glutamate into glutathione, allowing it to be used up. The researchers found that theses nerves were more excited and fired faster, which means they were sending more messages to other brain cells. The researchers say shifting the balance this way is akin to shifting the brain cells to a pattern similar to one found in the brains of people with schizophrenia. Next, the researchers wanted to see if they could do the opposite and shift the balance to get more glutamate stored in the form of glutathione. They used the chemical sulforaphane found in broccoli sprouts, which is known to turn on a gene that makes more of the enzyme that sticks glutamate with another molecule to make glutathione. When they treated rat brain cells with glutathione, it slowed the speed at which the nerve cells fired, meaning they were sending fewer messages. The researchers say this pushed the brain cells to behave less like the pattern found in brains with schizophrenia.

“We are thinking of glutathione as glutamate stored in a gas tank,” says Thomas Sedlak, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “If you have a bigger gas tank, you have more leeway on how far you can drive, but as soon as you take the gas out of the tank it’s burned up quickly. We can think of those with schizophrenia as having a smaller gas tank.”

Because sulforaphane changed the glutamate imbalance in the rat brains and affected how messages were transmitted between the rat brain cells, the researchers wanted to test whether sulforaphane could change glutathione levels in healthy people’s brains and see if this could eventually be a strategy for people with mental disorders. For their study, published in April 2018 in Molecular Neuropsychiatry, the researchers recruited nine healthy volunteers (four women, five men) to take two capsules with 100 micromoles daily of sulforaphane in the form of broccoli sprout extract for seven days.

The volunteers reported that a few of them were gassy and some had stomach upset when eating the capsules on an empty stomach, but overall the sulforaphane was relatively well tolerated.

The researchers used MRS again to monitor three brain regions for glutathione levels in the healthy volunteers before and after taking sulforaphane. They found that after seven days, there was about a 30% increase in average glutathione levels in the subjects’ brains. For example, in the hippocampus, glutathione levels rose an average of 0.27 millimolar from a baseline of 1.1 millimolar after seven days of taking sulforaphane.

The scientists say further research is needed to learn whether sulforaphane can safely reduce symptoms of psychosis or hallucinations in people with schizophrenia. They would need to determine an optimal dose and see how long people must take it to observe an effect. The researchers caution that their studies don’t justify or demonstrate the value of using commercially available sulforaphane supplements to treat or prevent schizophrenia, and patients should consult their physicians before trying any kind of over-the-counter supplement. Versions of sulforaphane supplementsare sold in health food stores and at vitamin counters, and aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“For people predisposed to heart disease, we know that changes in diet and exercise can help stave off the disease, but there isn’t anything like that for severe mental disorders yet,” says Sedlak. “We are hoping that we will one day make some mental illness preventable to a certain extent.”

Sulforaphane is found in a variety of cruciferous vegetables, and was first identified as a “chemoprotective” substance decades ago by Paul Talalay and Jed Fahey at Johns Hopkins.

According to the World Health Organization, schizophrenia affects about 21 million people worldwide.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-05/jhm-bsc050619.php