Hormonal birth control explainer: a matter of health

Politics often interferes where it has no natural business, and one of those places is the discussion among a teenager, her parents, and her doctor or between a woman and her doctor about the best choices for health. The hottest button politics is pushing right now takes the form of a tiny hormone-containing pill known popularly as the birth control pill or, simply, The Pill. This hormonal medication, when taken correctly (same time every day, every day), does indeed prevent pregnancy. But like just about any other medication, this one has multiple uses, the majority of them unrelated to pregnancy prevention.

But let’s start with pregnancy prevention first and get it out of the way. When I used to ask my students how these hormone pills work, they almost invariably answered, “By making your body think it is pregnant.” That’s not correct. We take advantage of our understanding of how our bodies regulate hormones not to mimic pregnancy, exactly, but instead to flatten out what we usually talk about as a hormone cycle. 

The Menstrual Cycle

In a hormonally cycling girl or woman, the brain talks to the ovaries and the ovaries send messages to the uterus and back to the brain. All this chat takes place via chemicals called hormones. In human females, the ovarian hormones are progesterone and estradiol, a type of estrogen, and the brain hormones are luteinizing hormoneand follicle-stimulating hormone. The levels of these four hormones drive what we think of as the menstrual cycle, which exists to prepare an egg for fertilization and to make the uterine lining ready to receive a fertilized egg, should it arrive. 

Fig. 1. Female reproductive anatomy. Credit: Jeanne Garbarino.
In the theoretical 28-day cycle, fertilization (fusion of sperm and egg), if it occurs, will happen about 14 days in, timed with ovulation, or release of the egg from the ovary into the Fallopian tube or oviduct (see video–watch for the tiny egg–and Figure 1). The fertilized egg will immediately start dividing, and a ball of cells (called a blastocyst) that ultimately develops is expected to arrive at the uterus a few days later.
If the ball of cells shows up and implants in the uterine wall, the ovary continues producing progesterone to keep that fluffy, welcoming uterine lining in place. If nothing shows up, the ovaries drop output of estradiol and progesterone so that the uterus releases its lining of cells (which girls and women recognize as their “period”), and the cycle starts all over again.


A typical cycle

The typical cycle (which almost no girl or woman seems to have) begins on day 1 when a girl or woman starts her “period.” This bleeding is the shedding of the uterine lining, a letting go of tissue because the ovaries have bottomed out production of the hormones that keep the tissue intact. During this time, the brain and ovaries are in communication. In the first two weeks of the cycle, called the “follicular phase” (see Figure 2), an ovary has the job of promoting an egg to mature. The egg is protected inside a follicle that spends about 14 days reaching maturity. During this time, the ovary produces estrogen at increasing levels, which causes thickening of the uterine lining, until the estradiol hits a peak about midway through the cycle. This spike sends a hormone signal to the brain, which responds with a hormone spike of its own.

Fig. 2. Top: Day of cycle and phases. Second row: Body temperature (at waking) through cycle.
Third row: Hormones and their levels. Fourth row: What the ovaries are doing.
Fifth row: What the uterus is doing. Via Wikimedia Commons
In the figure, you can see this spike as the red line indicating luteinizing hormone. A smaller spike of follicle-stimulating hormone (blue line), also from the brain, occurs simultaneously. These two hormones along with the estradiol peak result in the follicle expelling the egg from the ovary into the Fallopian tube, or oviduct (Figure 3, step 4). That’s ovulation.
Fun fact: Right when the estrogen spikes, a woman’s body temperature will typically drop a bit (see “Basal body temperature” in the figure), so many women have used temperature monitoring to know that ovulation is happening. Some women also may experience a phenomenon called mittelschmerz, a pain sensation on the side where ovulation is occurring; ovaries trade off follicle duties with each cycle.  

The window of time for a sperm to meet the egg is usually very short, about a day. Meanwhile, as the purple line in the “hormone level” section of Figure 2 shows, the ovary in question immediately begins pumping out progesterone, which maintains that proliferated uterine lining should a ball of dividing cells show up.
Fig. 3. Follicle cycle in the ovary. Steps 1-3, follicular phase, during
which the follicle matures with the egg inside. Step 4: Ovulation, followed by
the luteal phase. Step 5: Corpus luteum (yellow body) releases progesterone.
Step 6: corpus luteum degrades if no implantation in uterus occurs.
Via Wikimedia Commons.
The structure in the ovary responsible for this phase, the luteal phase, is the corpus luteum (“yellow body”; see Figure 3, step 5), which puts out progesterone for a couple of weeks after ovulation to keep the uterine lining in place. If nothing implants, the corpus luteum degenerates (Figure 3, step 6). If implantation takes place, this structure will (should) instead continue producing progesterone through the early weeks of pregnancy to ensure that the lining doesn’t shed.

How do hormones in a pill stop all of this?

The hormones from the brain–luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone– spike because the brain gets signals from the ovarian hormones. When a girl or woman takes the pills, which contain synthetics of ovarian hormones, the hormone dose doesn’t peak that way. Instead, the pills expose the girl or woman to a flat daily dose of hormones (synthetic estradiol and synthetic progesterone) or hormone (synthetic progesterone only). Without these peaks (and valleys), the brain doesn’t release the hormones that trigger follicle maturation or ovulation. Without follicle maturation and ovulation, no egg will be present for fertilization.

Assorted hormonal pills. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Most prescriptions of hormone pills are for packets of 28 pills. Typically, seven of these pills–sometimes fewer–are “dummy pills.” During the time a woman takes these dummy pills, her body shows the signs of withdrawal from the hormones, usually as a fairly light bleeding for those days, known as “withdrawal bleeding.” With the lowest-dose pills, the uterine lining may proliferate very little, so that this bleeding can be quite light compared to what a woman might experience under natural hormone influences.

How important are hormonal interventions for birth control?

Every woman has a story to tell, and the stories about the importance of hormonal birth control are legion. My personal story is this: I have three children. With our last son, I had two transient ischemic attacks at the end of the pregnancy, tiny strokes resulting from high blood pressure in the pregnancy. I had to undergo an immediate induction. This was the second time I’d had this condition, called pre-eclampsia, having also had this with our first son. My OB-GYN told me under no uncertain terms that I could not–should not–get pregnant again, as a pregnancy could be life threatening.

But I’m married, happily. As my sister puts it, my husband and I “like each other.” We had to have a failsafe method of ensuring that I wouldn’t become pregnant and endanger my life. For several years, hormonal medication made that possible. After I began having cluster headaches and high blood pressure on this medication in my forties, my OB-GYN and I talked about options, and we ultimately turned to surgery to prevent pregnancy.

But surgery is almost always not reversible. For a younger woman, it’s not the temporary option that hormonal pills provide. Hormonal interventions also are available in other forms, including as a vaginal ring, intrauterine device (some are hormonal), and implants, all reversible.

                                            

One of the most important things a society can do for its own health is to ensure that women in that society have as much control as possible over their reproduction. Thanks to hormonal interventions, although I’ve been capable of childbearing for 30 years, I’ve had only three children in that time. The ability to control my childbearing has meant I’ve been able to focus on being the best woman, mother, friend, and partner I can be, not only for myself and my family, but as a contributor to society, as well.

What are other uses of hormonal interventions?

Heavy, painful, or irregular periods. Did you read that part about how flat hormone inputs can mean less build up of the uterine lining and thus less bleeding and a shorter period? Many girls and women who lack hormonal interventions experience bleeding so heavy that they become anemic. This kind of bleeding can take a girl or woman out of commission for days at a time, in addition to threatening her health. Pain and irregular bleeding also are disabling and negatively affect quality of life on a frequent basis. Taking a single pill each day can make it all better. 


Unfortunately, the current political climate can take this situation–especially for teenage girls–and cast it as a personal moral failing with implications that a girl who takes hormonal medications is a “slut,” rather than the real fact that this hormonal intervention is literally maintaining the regularity of her health.

For some context, imagine that a whenever a boy or man produced sperm, it was painful or caused extensive blood loss that resulted in anemia. Would there be any issues raised with providing a medication that successfully addressed this problem?

Polycystic ovarian syndrome. This syndrome is, at its core, an imbalance of the ovarian hormones that is associated with all kinds of problems, from acne to infertility to overweight to uterine cancer. Guess what balances those hormones back out? Yes. Hormonal medication, otherwise known as The Pill.  

Again, for some context, imagine that this syndrome affected testes instead of ovaries, and caused boys and men to become infertile, experience extreme pain in the testes, gain weight, be at risk for diabetes, and lose their hair. Would there be an issue with providing appropriate hormonal medication to address this problem?

Acne. I had a friend in high school who was on hormonal medication, not because she was sexually active (she was not) but because she struggled for years with acne. This is an FDA-approved use of this medication.

Are there health benefits of hormonal interventions?

In a word, yes. They can protect against certain cancers, including ovarian and endometrial, or uterine, cancer. Women die from these cancers, and this protection is not negligible. They may also help protect against osteoporosis, or bone loss. In cases like mine, they protect against a potentially life-threatening pregnancy.

Speaking of pregnancy, access to contraception is “the only reliable way” to reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortion rates [PDF]. Pregnancy itself is far more threatening to a girl’s (in particular) or woman’s health than hormonal contraception.

Are there health risks with hormonal interventions?

Yes. No medical intervention is without risk. In the case of hormonal interventions, lifestyle habits such as smoking can enhance risk for high blood pressure and blood clots. Age can be a factor, although–as I can attest–women no longer have to stop taking hormonal interventions after age 35 as long as they are nonsmokers and blood pressure is normal. These interventions have been associated with a decrease in some cancers, as I’ve noted, but also with an increase in others, such as liver cancer, over the long term. The effect on breast cancer risk is mixed and may have to do with how long taking the medication delays childbearing. ETA: PLoS Medicine just published a paper (open access) addressing the effects of hormonal interventions on cancer risk.
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By Emily Willingham, DXS Managing Editor
Opinions expressed in this piece are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of all DXS editors or contributors.

Xplainer: How do you date a pregnancy?



Pregnancy
By Catherine Anderson, DXS contributor
[This post first appeared Musings of Genegeek.]

In the first case-based class of medical school, students are asked to answer a virtual patient’s question about the development of the fetus. These students are smart and they know all about betaHcG and are anxious to showcase their knowledge of the menstrual cycle with fluctuating levels of various hormones (FSH, progesterone, etc.). Yet one question brings confusion, “How pregnant is this woman?” The related question, “When does pregnancy start?” leaves the students flummoxed. Is it at conception? But how do you know when that happens? Or does implantation make more sense? It’s a great example of how detailed facts need the larger context.
The usual dating is gestational age, based on the first day of your last menstrual period. However, you can also date a pregnancy with embryological age, starting at conception.
How you date a pregnancy can depend on your perspective. My very general guideline:
  • Pregnant woman is the focus = gestational age (e.g., obstetricians) 1
  • Focus on embryological/fetal development = embryological age (e.g., developmental biologist) 2
But why are there two types of dates? We might need a bit of a primer on the menstrual cycle and how it relates to pregnancy.

Implantation happens between days 20 and 22. Pregnancy is often detected after the first missed period.
This graphic is intentionally simple, removing all the hormones and other fun stuff (Ed: which you can find here). You’ll note that it says approximately day 14 and day 28. In textbooks, we often see that women have 28-day cycles and everything has a nice schedule. However, women are not textbooks and sometimes have shorter or longer cycles and/or have ovulation at slightly different times. Therefore, knowing when fertilization and conception happen can be a bit tricky. An obvious marker is the first day of the last menstrual period (LMP). Why the last day? Well, another variable is the length of menses but everyone has a first day so to be consistent, that is the marker used.
We generally use gestational age when discussing pregnancy. So when someone says that they are 8 weeks pregnant, they mean it has been 8 weeks since the first day of the LMP (last menstrual period).
But that means that the first two weeks of pregnancy has nothing happening. If you are concerned about development, you don’t start counting at week 3 but start at the time of fertilization, two weeks later. Therefore, the embryological age is generally two weeks later.
But remember, we have essentially picked gestational age as the convention for discussing pregnancy dates. If  there are markers in development to suggest that the embryological age is different (for example, the fetus is 12 weeks, not 13 weeks), the gestational age is often reported to the mother. In our example, the dating would be changed to 14 weeks.
Due to the difference in these dates, we see confusion beyond medical students thinking about this for the first time. It was recently reported that Arizona had changed its abortion law to be the most restrictive – but it hadn’t. It had just joined other states in making the limit 20 weeks gestational age. Remember, this is the accepted convention for pregnancy dating – but many articles picked up on that initial two weeks of nothingness in gestational age and confused it with embryological age. Was this an example of details without understanding of the greater context?
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  1. Synonyms include obstetrical and menstrual age. 
  2. Synonyms include developmental, conception, and fetal age. 

Opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect or conflict with the opinions of DXS editors or contributors.
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Dr. Catherine Anderson is a Clinical Instructor for the Faculties of Medicine and Dentistry for UBC in Vancouver, Canada. She also leads the Future Science Leaders program, helping teens excel in science and technology. She received her PhD in Medical Genetics and has spent the last 10 years helping people understand the biological sciences: the information and the impact on our lives. You can follow her on Twitter @genegeek.

Pregnancy 101: Fertilization is another way to come together during sex

Human ovum (egg). The zona pellucida is a thick clear girdle surrounded by
the cells of the corona radiata (radiant crown). Via Wikimedia Commons.
It was September of 2006. Due to certain events taking place on a certain evening after a certain bottle (or two) of wine, my body was transformed into a human incubator. While I will not describe the events leading up to that very moment, I will dissect the way in which we propagate our species through a magnificent process called fertilization.
During the fertilization play, there are two stars: the sperm cell and the egg cell. The sperm cell hails from a male and is the end product of a series of developmental stages occurring in the testes. The egg cell (or ovum), which is produced by a female, is the largest cell in the human body and becomes a fertilizable entity as a result of the ovulatory process. But to truly understand what is happening at the moment of fertilization, it is important to know more about the cells from which all human life is derived.
Act I: Of sperm and eggs

A sperm cell is described as having a “head” section and a “tail” section. The head, which is shaped like a flattened oval, contains most of the cellular components, including DNA. The head also contains an important structure called an acrosome, which is basically a sac containing enzymes that will help the sperm fuse with an egg (more about the acrosome below). The role of the tail portion of sperm is to act as a propeller, allowing these cells to “swim.” At the top of the tail, near where it meets the head, are a ton of tiny structures called mitochondria. These kidney-shaped components are the powerhouses of all cells, and they generate the energy required for the sperm tail to move the sperm toward its target: the egg.
The egg is a spherical cell containing the usual components, including DNA and mitochondria. However, it differs from other human cells thanks to the presence of a protective shell called the zona pellucida. The egg cell also contains millions of tiny sacs, termed cortical granules, that serve a similar function to the acrosome in sperm cells (more on the granules below).  


Act II: A sperm cell’s journey to the center of the universefemale reproductive system
Given the cyclical nature of the female menstrual cycle, the window for fertilization during each cycle is finite. However, the precise number of days per month a women is fertile remains unclear. On the low end, the window of opportunity lasts for an estimated two days, based on the survival time of the sperm and egg. On the high end, the World Health Organization estimates a fertility window of 10 days. Somewhere in the middle lies a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which suggests that six is the magic number of days.

Assuming the fertility window is open, getting pregnant depends on a sperm cell making it to where the egg is located. Achieving that goal is not an easy feat. To help overcome the odds, we have evolved a number of biological tactics. For instance, the volume of a typical male human ejaculate is about a half-teaspoon or more and is estimated to contain about 300 million sperm cells. To become fully active, sperm cells require modification. The acidic environment of the vagina helps with that modification, allowing sperm to gain what is called hyperactive motility, in which its whip-like tail motors it along toward the egg.

Once active, sperm cells begin their long journey through the female reproductive system. To help guide the way, the cells around the female egg emit a chemical substance that attracts sperm cells. The orientation toward these chemicals is called chemotaxis and helps the sperm cells swim in the right direction (after all, they don’t have eyes). Furthermore, sperm get a little extra boost by the contraction of the muscles lining the female reproductive tract, which aid in pushing the little guys along. But, despite all of these efforts, sperm cell death rates are quite high, and only about 200 sperm cells actually make it to the oviduct (also called the fallopian tube), where the egg awaits.

                                                

Act III: Egg marks the spot

With the target in sight, the sperm cells make a beeline for the egg. However, for successful fertilization, only a single sperm cell can fuse with the egg. If an egg fuses with more than one sperm, the outcome can be anything from a failure of fertilization to the development of an embryo and fetus, known as a partial hydatidiform mole, that has a complete extra set of chromosomes and will not survive. Luckily, the egg has ways to help ensure only one sperm fuses with it.

When it reaches the egg, the sperm cell attaches to the surface of the zona pellucida, a protective shell for the egg. For the sperm to fuse with the egg, it must first break through this shell. Enter the sperm cell’s acrosome, which acts as an enzymatic drill. This “drilling,” in combination with the propeller movement of the sperm’s tail, helps to create a hole so that the sperm cell can access the juicy bits of the egg.

This breach of the zona pellucida and fusion of the sperm and egg sets off a rapid cascade of events to block other sperm cells from penetrating the egg’s protective shell. The first response is a shift in the charge of the egg’s cell membrane from negative to positive. This change in charge creates a sort of electrical force field, repelling other sperm cells.



Though this response is lightning fast, it is a temporary measure. A more permanent solution involves the cortical granuleswithin the egg. These tiny sacs release their contents, causing the zona pellucida to harden like the setting of concrete. In effect, the egg–sperm fusion induces the egg to construct a virtually impenetrable wall. Left outside in the cold, the other, unsuccessful sperm cells die within 48 hours.  

Now that the sperm–egg fusion has gone down, the egg start the maturation required for embryo-fetal development. The fertilized egg, now called a zygote, begins its journey into the womb and immediately begins round after round of cell division, over a few weeks resulting in a multicellular organism with a heart, lungs, brain, blood, bones, muscles, and hair. It’s an amazing phenomenon that I’m honored to have experienced (although I didn’t know I was until several weeks later).

The Afterword: A note on genetics

 

A normal human cell that is not a sperm or an egg will contain 23 pairs of chromosomes, for a total of 46 chromosomes. Any deviation from this number of chromosomes will lead to developmental misfires that in most cases results in a non-viable embryo. However, in some instances, a deviation from 46 chromosomes allows for fetal development and birth. The most well-known example is Trisomy 21(having three copies of the 21st chromosome per cell instead of two), also called Down’s Syndrome.

The egg and sperm cells are unlike any other cell in our body. They’re special enough to have a special name, gametes, and they each contain one set of chromosomes, or 23 chromosomes. Because they have half the typical number per cell, when the egg and sperm cell fuse, the resulting zygote contains the typical chromosome number of 46. Now you know how we get half of our genes from our father (who made the sperm cell) and half from our mother (who made the egg cell). Did I just put in your head an image of your parents having sex? It’s the birds and the bees, folks—it applies to everyone!


All text and art except as otherwise noted: 
Jeanne Garbarino, Double X Science Editor
Twitter @JeanneGarb
Animations

I love this video, merely for the fact that it is of B-quality and has a sound track clearly inspired from a porn flick, not to mention that it helps to put things in a more visual context:

This one is great as it has more of a sci-fi Death Star appeal:




References and further reading:
  • Potter RG Jr. “Length of the Fertile Period,” Milbank Q (1961);39:132-162
  • World Health Organization. “A prospective multicentre trial of the ovulation method of natural family planning. III. Characteristics of the menstrual cycle and of the fertile phase,” Fertil Steril (1983);40:773-778
  • Allen J. Wilcox, et al. “Timing of Sexual Intercourse in Relation to Ovulation — Effects on the Probability of Conception, Survival of the Pregnancy, and Sex of the Baby,” New England Journal of Medicine, (1995); 333:1517-1521
  • Poland ML, Moghisse KS, Giblin PT, Ager JW,Olson JM. “Variation of semen measures within normal men,” Fertil Steril (1985);44:396-400
  • Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, et al.Fertilization,” Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition. New York: Garland Science; 2002.
  • How Human Reproduction Works” (contains a video of sperm fusing with egg)
  • Colorado State University’s “Structure of the gametes before fertilization” and “Fertilization.”

Biology Explainer: The big 4 building blocks of life–carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and nucleic acids

The short version
  • The four basic categories of molecules for building life are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids.
  • Carbohydrates serve many purposes, from energy to structure to chemical communication, as monomers or polymers.
  • Lipids, which are hydrophobic, also have different purposes, including energy storage, structure, and signaling.
  • Proteins, made of amino acids in up to four structural levels, are involved in just about every process of life.                                                                                                      
  • The nucleic acids DNA and RNA consist of four nucleotide building blocks, and each has different purposes.
The longer version
Life is so diverse and unwieldy, it may surprise you to learn that we can break it down into four basic categories of molecules. Possibly even more implausible is the fact that two of these categories of large molecules themselves break down into a surprisingly small number of building blocks. The proteins that make up all of the living things on this planet and ensure their appropriate structure and smooth function consist of only 20 different kinds of building blocks. Nucleic acids, specifically DNA, are even more basic: only four different kinds of molecules provide the materials to build the countless different genetic codes that translate into all the different walking, swimming, crawling, oozing, and/or photosynthesizing organisms that populate the third rock from the Sun.

                                                  

Big Molecules with Small Building Blocks

The functional groups, assembled into building blocks on backbones of carbon atoms, can be bonded together to yield large molecules that we classify into four basic categories. These molecules, in many different permutations, are the basis for the diversity that we see among living things. They can consist of thousands of atoms, but only a handful of different kinds of atoms form them. It’s like building apartment buildings using a small selection of different materials: bricks, mortar, iron, glass, and wood. Arranged in different ways, these few materials can yield a huge variety of structures.

We encountered functional groups and the SPHONC in Chapter 3. These components form the four categories of molecules of life. These Big Four biological molecules are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. They can have many roles, from giving an organism structure to being involved in one of the millions of processes of living. Let’s meet each category individually and discover the basic roles of each in the structure and function of life.
Carbohydrates

You have met carbohydrates before, whether you know it or not. We refer to them casually as “sugars,” molecules made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. A sugar molecule has a carbon backbone, usually five or six carbons in the ones we’ll discuss here, but it can be as few as three. Sugar molecules can link together in pairs or in chains or branching “trees,” either for structure or energy storage.

When you look on a nutrition label, you’ll see reference to “sugars.” That term includes carbohydrates that provide energy, which we get from breaking the chemical bonds in a sugar called glucose. The “sugars” on a nutrition label also include those that give structure to a plant, which we call fiber. Both are important nutrients for people.

Sugars serve many purposes. They give crunch to the cell walls of a plant or the exoskeleton of a beetle and chemical energy to the marathon runner. When attached to other molecules, like proteins or fats, they aid in communication between cells. But before we get any further into their uses, let’s talk structure.

The sugars we encounter most in basic biology have their five or six carbons linked together in a ring. There’s no need to dive deep into organic chemistry, but there are a couple of essential things to know to interpret the standard representations of these molecules.

Check out the sugars depicted in the figure. The top-left molecule, glucose, has six carbons, which have been numbered. The sugar to its right is the same glucose, with all but one “C” removed. The other five carbons are still there but are inferred using the conventions of organic chemistry: Anywhere there is a corner, there’s a carbon unless otherwise indicated. It might be a good exercise for you to add in a “C” over each corner so that you gain a good understanding of this convention. You should end up adding in five carbon symbols; the sixth is already given because that is conventionally included when it occurs outside of the ring.

On the left is a glucose with all of its carbons indicated. They’re also numbered, which is important to understand now for information that comes later. On the right is the same molecule, glucose, without the carbons indicated (except for the sixth one). Wherever there is a corner, there is a carbon, unless otherwise indicated (as with the oxygen). On the bottom left is ribose, the sugar found in RNA. The sugar on the bottom right is deoxyribose. Note that at carbon 2 (*), the ribose and deoxyribose differ by a single oxygen.

The lower left sugar in the figure is a ribose. In this depiction, the carbons, except the one outside of the ring, have not been drawn in, and they are not numbered. This is the standard way sugars are presented in texts. Can you tell how many carbons there are in this sugar? Count the corners and don’t forget the one that’s already indicated!

If you said “five,” you are right. Ribose is a pentose (pent = five) and happens to be the sugar present in ribonucleic acid, or RNA. Think to yourself what the sugar might be in deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. If you thought, deoxyribose, you’d be right.

The fourth sugar given in the figure is a deoxyribose. In organic chemistry, it’s not enough to know that corners indicate carbons. Each carbon also has a specific number, which becomes important in discussions of nucleic acids. Luckily, we get to keep our carbon counting pretty simple in basic biology. To count carbons, you start with the carbon to the right of the non-carbon corner of the molecule. The deoxyribose or ribose always looks to me like a little cupcake with a cherry on top. The “cherry” is an oxygen. To the right of that oxygen, we start counting carbons, so that corner to the right of the “cherry” is the first carbon. Now, keep counting. Here’s a little test: What is hanging down from carbon 2 of the deoxyribose?

If you said a hydrogen (H), you are right! Now, compare the deoxyribose to the ribose. Do you see the difference in what hangs off of the carbon 2 of each sugar? You’ll see that the carbon 2 of ribose has an –OH, rather than an H. The reason the deoxyribose is called that is because the O on the second carbon of the ribose has been removed, leaving a “deoxyed” ribose. This tiny distinction between the sugars used in DNA and RNA is significant enough in biology that we use it to distinguish the two nucleic acids.

In fact, these subtle differences in sugars mean big differences for many biological molecules. Below, you’ll find a couple of ways that apparently small changes in a sugar molecule can mean big changes in what it does. These little changes make the difference between a delicious sugar cookie and the crunchy exoskeleton of a dung beetle.

Sugar and Fuel

A marathon runner keeps fuel on hand in the form of “carbs,” or sugars. These fuels provide the marathoner’s straining body with the energy it needs to keep the muscles pumping. When we take in sugar like this, it often comes in the form of glucose molecules attached together in a polymer called starch. We are especially equipped to start breaking off individual glucose molecules the minute we start chewing on a starch.

Double X Extra: A monomer is a building block (mono = one) and a polymer is a chain of monomers. With a few dozen monomers or building blocks, we get millions of different polymers. That may sound nutty until you think of the infinity of values that can be built using only the numbers 0 through 9 as building blocks or the intricate programming that is done using only a binary code of zeros and ones in different combinations.

Our bodies then can rapidly take the single molecules, or monomers, into cells and crack open the chemical bonds to transform the energy for use. The bonds of a sugar are packed with chemical energy that we capture to build a different kind of energy-containing molecule that our muscles access easily. Most species rely on this process of capturing energy from sugars and transforming it for specific purposes.

Polysaccharides: Fuel and Form

Plants use the Sun’s energy to make their own glucose, and starch is actually a plant’s way of storing up that sugar. Potatoes, for example, are quite good at packing away tons of glucose molecules and are known to dieticians as a “starchy” vegetable. The glucose molecules in starch are packed fairly closely together. A string of sugar molecules bonded together through dehydration synthesis, as they are in starch, is a polymer called a polysaccharide (poly = many; saccharide = sugar). When the monomers of the polysaccharide are released, as when our bodies break them up, the reaction that releases them is called hydrolysis.

Double X Extra: The specific reaction that hooks one monomer to another in a covalent bond is called dehydration synthesis because in making the bond–synthesizing the larger molecule–a molecule of water is removed (dehydration). The reverse is hydrolysis (hydro = water; lysis = breaking), which breaks the covalent bond by the addition of a molecule of water.

Although plants make their own glucose and animals acquire it by eating the plants, animals can also package away the glucose they eat for later use. Animals, including humans, store glucose in a polysaccharide called glycogen, which is more branched than starch. In us, we build this energy reserve primarily in the liver and access it when our glucose levels drop.

Whether starch or glycogen, the glucose molecules that are stored are bonded together so that all of the molecules are oriented the same way. If you view the sixth carbon of the glucose to be a “carbon flag,” you’ll see in the figure that all of the glucose molecules in starch are oriented with their carbon flags on the upper left.

The orientation of monomers of glucose in polysaccharides can make a big difference in the use of the polymer. The glucoses in the molecule on the top are all oriented “up” and form starch. The glucoses in the molecule on the bottom alternate orientation to form cellulose, which is quite different in its function from starch.

Storing up sugars for fuel and using them as fuel isn’t the end of the uses of sugar. In fact, sugars serve as structural molecules in a huge variety of organisms, including fungi, bacteria, plants, and insects.

The primary structural role of a sugar is as a component of the cell wall, giving the organism support against gravity. In plants, the familiar old glucose molecule serves as one building block of the plant cell wall, but with a catch: The molecules are oriented in an alternating up-down fashion. The resulting structural sugar is called cellulose.

That simple difference in orientation means the difference between a polysaccharide as fuel for us and a polysaccharide as structure. Insects take it step further with the polysaccharide that makes up their exoskeleton, or outer shell. Once again, the building block is glucose, arranged as it is in cellulose, in an alternating conformation. But in insects, each glucose has a little extra added on, a chemical group called an N-acetyl group. This addition of a single functional group alters the use of cellulose and turns it into a structural molecule that gives bugs that special crunchy sound when you accidentally…ahem…step on them.

These variations on the simple theme of a basic carbon-ring-as-building-block occur again and again in biological systems. In addition to serving roles in structure and as fuel, sugars also play a role in function. The attachment of subtly different sugar molecules to a protein or a lipid is one way cells communicate chemically with one another in refined, regulated interactions. It’s as though the cells talk with each other using a specialized, sugar-based vocabulary. Typically, cells display these sugary messages to the outside world, making them available to other cells that can recognize the molecular language.

Lipids: The Fatty Trifecta

Starch makes for good, accessible fuel, something that we immediately attack chemically and break up for quick energy. But fats are energy that we are supposed to bank away for a good long time and break out in times of deprivation. Like sugars, fats serve several purposes, including as a dense source of energy and as a universal structural component of cell membranes everywhere.

Fats: the Good, the Bad, the Neutral

Turn again to a nutrition label, and you’ll see a few references to fats, also known as lipids. (Fats are slightly less confusing that sugars in that they have only two names.) The label may break down fats into categories, including trans fats, saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and cholesterol. You may have learned that trans fats are “bad” and that there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, but what does it all mean?

Let’s start with what we mean when we say saturated fat. The question is, saturated with what? There is a specific kind of dietary fat call the triglyceride. As its name implies, it has a structural motif in which something is repeated three times. That something is a chain of carbons and hydrogens, hanging off in triplicate from a head made of glycerol, as the figure shows.  Those three carbon-hydrogen chains, or fatty acids, are the “tri” in a triglyceride. Chains like this can be many carbons long.

Double X Extra: We call a fatty acid a fatty acid because it’s got a carboxylic acid attached to a fatty tail. A triglyceride consists of three of these fatty acids attached to a molecule called glycerol. Our dietary fat primarily consists of these triglycerides.

Triglycerides come in several forms. You may recall that carbon can form several different kinds of bonds, including single bonds, as with hydrogen, and double bonds, as with itself. A chain of carbon and hydrogens can have every single available carbon bond taken by a hydrogen in single covalent bond. This scenario of hydrogen saturation yields a saturated fat. The fat is saturated to its fullest with every covalent bond taken by hydrogens single bonded to the carbons.

Saturated fats have predictable characteristics. They lie flat easily and stick to each other, meaning that at room temperature, they form a dense solid. You will realize this if you find a little bit of fat on you to pinch. Does it feel pretty solid? That’s because animal fat is saturated fat. The fat on a steak is also solid at room temperature, and in fact, it takes a pretty high heat to loosen it up enough to become liquid. Animals are not the only organisms that produce saturated fat–avocados and coconuts also are known for their saturated fat content.

The top graphic above depicts a triglyceride with the glycerol, acid, and three hydrocarbon tails. The tails of this saturated fat, with every possible hydrogen space occupied, lie comparatively flat on one another, and this kind of fat is solid at room temperature. The fat on the bottom, however, is unsaturated, with bends or kinks wherever two carbons have double bonded, booting a couple of hydrogens and making this fat unsaturated, or lacking some hydrogens. Because of the space between the bumps, this fat is probably not solid at room temperature, but liquid.

You can probably now guess what an unsaturated fat is–one that has one or more hydrogens missing. Instead of single bonding with hydrogens at every available space, two or more carbons in an unsaturated fat chain will form a double bond with carbon, leaving no space for a hydrogen. Because some carbons in the chain share two pairs of electrons, they physically draw closer to one another than they do in a single bond. This tighter bonding result in a “kink” in the fatty acid chain.

In a fat with these kinks, the three fatty acids don’t lie as densely packed with each other as they do in a saturated fat. The kinks leave spaces between them. Thus, unsaturated fats are less dense than saturated fats and often will be liquid at room temperature. A good example of a liquid unsaturated fat at room temperature is canola oil.

A few decades ago, food scientists discovered that unsaturated fats could be resaturated or hydrogenated to behave more like saturated fats and have a longer shelf life. The process of hydrogenation–adding in hydrogens–yields trans fat. This kind of processed fat is now frowned upon and is being removed from many foods because of its associations with adverse health effects. If you check a food label and it lists among the ingredients “partially hydrogenated” oils, that can mean that the food contains trans fat.

Double X Extra: A triglyceride can have up to three different fatty acids attached to it. Canola oil, for example, consists primarily of oleic acid, linoleic acid, and linolenic acid, all of which are unsaturated fatty acids with 18 carbons in their chains.

Why do we take in fat anyway? Fat is a necessary nutrient for everything from our nervous systems to our circulatory health. It also, under appropriate conditions, is an excellent way to store up densely packaged energy for the times when stores are running low. We really can’t live very well without it.

Phospholipids: An Abundant Fat

You may have heard that oil and water don’t mix, and indeed, it is something you can observe for yourself. Drop a pat of butter–pure saturated fat–into a bowl of water and watch it just sit there. Even if you try mixing it with a spoon, it will just sit there. Now, drop a spoon of salt into the water and stir it a bit. The salt seems to vanish. You’ve just illustrated the difference between a water-fearing (hydrophobic) and a water-loving (hydrophilic) substance.

Generally speaking, compounds that have an unequal sharing of electrons (like ions or anything with a covalent bond between oxygen and hydrogen or nitrogen and hydrogen) will be hydrophilic. The reason is that a charge or an unequal electron sharing gives the molecule polarity that allows it to interact with water through hydrogen bonds. A fat, however, consists largely of hydrogen and carbon in those long chains. Carbon and hydrogen have roughly equivalent electronegativities, and their electron-sharing relationship is relatively nonpolar. Fat, lacking in polarity, doesn’t interact with water. As the butter demonstrated, it just sits there.

There is one exception to that little maxim about fat and water, and that exception is the phospholipid. This lipid has a special structure that makes it just right for the job it does: forming the membranes of cells. A phospholipid consists of a polar phosphate head–P and O don’t share equally–and a couple of nonpolar hydrocarbon tails, as the figure shows. If you look at the figure, you’ll see that one of the two tails has a little kick in it, thanks to a double bond between the two carbons there.

Phospholipids form a double layer and are the major structural components of cell membranes. Their bend, or kick, in one of the hydrocarbon tails helps ensure fluidity of the cell membrane. The molecules are bipolar, with hydrophilic heads for interacting with the internal and external watery environments of the cell and hydrophobic tails that help cell membranes behave as general security guards.

The kick and the bipolar (hydrophobic and hydrophilic) nature of the phospholipid make it the perfect molecule for building a cell membrane. A cell needs a watery outside to survive. It also needs a watery inside to survive. Thus, it must face the inside and outside worlds with something that interacts well with water. But it also must protect itself against unwanted intruders, providing a barrier that keeps unwanted things out and keeps necessary molecules in.

Phospholipids achieve it all. They assemble into a double layer around a cell but orient to allow interaction with the watery external and internal environments. On the layer facing the inside of the cell, the phospholipids orient their polar, hydrophilic heads to the watery inner environment and their tails away from it. On the layer to the outside of the cell, they do the same.
As the figure shows, the result is a double layer of phospholipids with each layer facing a polar, hydrophilic head to the watery environments. The tails of each layer face one another. They form a hydrophobic, fatty moat around a cell that serves as a general gatekeeper, much in the way that your skin does for you. Charged particles cannot simply slip across this fatty moat because they can’t interact with it. And to keep the fat fluid, one tail of each phospholipid has that little kick, giving the cell membrane a fluid, liquidy flow and keeping it from being solid and unforgiving at temperatures in which cells thrive.

Steroids: Here to Pump You Up?

Our final molecule in the lipid fatty trifecta is cholesterol. As you may have heard, there are a few different kinds of cholesterol, some of which we consider to be “good” and some of which is “bad.” The good cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, in part helps us out because it removes the bad cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein or LDL, from our blood. The presence of LDL is associated with inflammation of the lining of the blood vessels, which can lead to a variety of health problems.

But cholesterol has some other reasons for existing. One of its roles is in the maintenance of cell membrane fluidity. Cholesterol is inserted throughout the lipid bilayer and serves as a block to the fatty tails that might otherwise stick together and become a bit too solid.

Cholesterol’s other starring role as a lipid is as the starting molecule for a class of hormones we called steroids or steroid hormones. With a few snips here and additions there, cholesterol can be changed into the steroid hormones progesterone, testosterone, or estrogen. These molecules look quite similar, but they play very different roles in organisms. Testosterone, for example, generally masculinizes vertebrates (animals with backbones), while progesterone and estrogen play a role in regulating the ovulatory cycle.

Double X Extra: A hormone is a blood-borne signaling molecule. It can be lipid based, like testosterone, or short protein, like insulin.

Proteins

As you progress through learning biology, one thing will become more and more clear: Most cells function primarily as protein factories. It may surprise you to learn that proteins, which we often talk about in terms of food intake, are the fundamental molecule of many of life’s processes. Enzymes, for example, form a single broad category of proteins, but there are millions of them, each one governing a small step in the molecular pathways that are required for living.

Levels of Structure

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. A few amino acids strung together is called a peptide, while many many peptides linked together form a polypeptide. When many amino acids strung together interact with each other to form a properly folded molecule, we call that molecule a protein.

For a string of amino acids to ultimately fold up into an active protein, they must first be assembled in the correct order. The code for their assembly lies in the DNA, but once that code has been read and the amino acid chain built, we call that simple, unfolded chain the primary structure of the protein.

This chain can consist of hundreds of amino acids that interact all along the sequence. Some amino acids are hydrophobic and some are hydrophilic. In this context, like interacts best with like, so the hydrophobic amino acids will interact with one another, and the hydrophilic amino acids will interact together. As these contacts occur along the string of molecules, different conformations will arise in different parts of the chain. We call these different conformations along the amino acid chain the protein’s secondary structure.

Once those interactions have occurred, the protein can fold into its final, or tertiary structure and be ready to serve as an active participant in cellular processes. To achieve the tertiary structure, the amino acid chain’s secondary interactions must usually be ongoing, and the pH, temperature, and salt balance must be just right to facilitate the folding. This tertiary folding takes place through interactions of the secondary structures along the different parts of the amino acid chain.

The final product is a properly folded protein. If we could see it with the naked eye, it might look a lot like a wadded up string of pearls, but that “wadded up” look is misleading. Protein folding is a carefully regulated process that is determined at its core by the amino acids in the chain: their hydrophobicity and hydrophilicity and how they interact together.

In many instances, however, a complete protein consists of more than one amino acid chain, and the complete protein has two or more interacting strings of amino acids. A good example is hemoglobin in red blood cells. Its job is to grab oxygen and deliver it to the body’s tissues. A complete hemoglobin protein consists of four separate amino acid chains all properly folded into their tertiary structures and interacting as a single unit. In cases like this involving two or more interacting amino acid chains, we say that the final protein has a quaternary structure. Some proteins can consist of as many as a dozen interacting chains, behaving as a single protein unit.

A Plethora of Purposes

What does a protein do? Let us count the ways. Really, that’s almost impossible because proteins do just about everything. Some of them tag things. Some of them destroy things. Some of them protect. Some mark cells as “self.” Some serve as structural materials, while others are highways or motors. They aid in communication, they operate as signaling molecules, they transfer molecules and cut them up, they interact with each other in complex, interrelated pathways to build things up and break things down. They regulate genes and package DNA, and they regulate and package each other.

As described above, proteins are the final folded arrangement of a string of amino acids. One way we obtain these building blocks for the millions of proteins our bodies make is through our diet. You may hear about foods that are high in protein or people eating high-protein diets to build muscle. When we take in those proteins, we can break them apart and use the amino acids that make them up to build proteins of our own.

Nucleic Acids

How does a cell know which proteins to make? It has a code for building them, one that is especially guarded in a cellular vault in our cells called the nucleus. This code is deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. The cell makes a copy of this code and send it out to specialized structures that read it and build proteins based on what they read. As with any code, a typo–a mutation–can result in a message that doesn’t make as much sense. When the code gets changed, sometimes, the protein that the cell builds using that code will be changed, too.

Biohazard!The names associated with nucleic acids can be confusing because they all start with nucle-. It may seem obvious or easy now, but a brain freeze on a test could mix you up. You need to fix in your mind that the shorter term (10 letters, four syllables), nucleotide, refers to the smaller molecule, the three-part building block. The longer term (12 characters, including the space, and five syllables), nucleic acid, which is inherent in the names DNA and RNA, designates the big, long molecule.

DNA vs. RNA: A Matter of Structure

DNA and its nucleic acid cousin, ribonucleic acid, or RNA, are both made of the same kinds of building blocks. These building blocks are called nucleotides. Each nucleotide consists of three parts: a sugar (ribose for RNA and deoxyribose for DNA), a phosphate, and a nitrogenous base. In DNA, every nucleotide has identical sugars and phosphates, and in RNA, the sugar and phosphate are also the same for every nucleotide.

So what’s different? The nitrogenous bases. DNA has a set of four to use as its coding alphabet. These are the purines, adenine and guanine, and the pyrimidines, thymine and cytosine. The nucleotides are abbreviated by their initial letters as A, G, T, and C. From variations in the arrangement and number of these four molecules, all of the diversity of life arises. Just four different types of the nucleotide building blocks, and we have you, bacteria, wombats, and blue whales.

RNA is also basic at its core, consisting of only four different nucleotides. In fact, it uses three of the same nitrogenous bases as DNA–A, G, and C–but it substitutes a base called uracil (U) where DNA uses thymine. Uracil is a pyrimidine.

DNA vs. RNA: Function Wars

An interesting thing about the nitrogenous bases of the nucleotides is that they pair with each other, using hydrogen bonds, in a predictable way. An adenine will almost always bond with a thymine in DNA or a uracil in RNA, and cytosine and guanine will almost always bond with each other. This pairing capacity allows the cell to use a sequence of DNA and build either a new DNA sequence, using the old one as a template, or build an RNA sequence to make a copy of the DNA.

These two different uses of A-T/U and C-G base pairing serve two different purposes. DNA is copied into DNA usually when a cell is preparing to divide and needs two complete sets of DNA for the new cells. DNA is copied into RNA when the cell needs to send the code out of the vault so proteins can be built. The DNA stays safely where it belongs.

RNA is really a nucleic acid jack-of-all-trades. It not only serves as the copy of the DNA but also is the main component of the two types of cellular workers that read that copy and build proteins from it. At one point in this process, the three types of RNA come together in protein assembly to make sure the job is done right.


 By Emily Willingham, DXS managing editor 
This material originally appeared in similar form in Emily Willingham’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology

Oocytelarge

Old ovaries, new eggs? Hatching a debate

Can adult women make new oocytes? 

by Sarah C.P. Williams      

For decades, biology textbooks have stated this as fact: “Women are born with all the eggs, or oocytes they will ever have.”1 The assumption — which shapes research on infertility and developmental biology, as well as women’s mindsets about their biological clocks — is that as women age, they use up those reserves they are born with. With each menstrual cycle, egg by egg, the stockpile wears down.

But is it true that women can’t produce any new oocytes in their adult life? Over the past decade, some scientists have begun to question the long-held assumption, publishing evidence that they can isolate egg-producing stem cells from adult human ovaries.

Last week, biologist Allan Spradling of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Carnegie Institution for Science, cast a shadow over those findings with a new analysis of the ovaries of adult female mice, which have similar reproductive systems to humans. By his measures of new egg formation, which he has previously studied and characterized during fetal development, there were no signs of activity in the adults.

“Personally, I think it’s quite clear,” says Spradling. “All the evidence has always said this. When oocyte development is going on, you see cysts everywhere. When you look at adults, you don’t see any.”

An oocyte, or egg cell, surrounded by some supporting cells.

The new paper does little to change the direction of those researchers already pursuing the stem cells, though. Jonathan Tilly of Massachusetts General Hospital was among the first to publish evidence that mice and human females have adult germ-line stem cells that can make new eggs.

“There’s so much evidence now from so many labs that have purified these cells and worked with these cells,” says Tilly. “What I don’t find of value is to say these cells don’t exist.”

For now, the two sides remain fractured — Spradling sees weaknesses in the way Tilly and others have isolated cells from the ovaries and suspects that the properties of the cells could change when they’re outside the body. And Tilly proposes that Spradling’s new data could be interpreted in a different way that in fact supports the presence of stem cells.

For women hoping for a scientific breakthrough to treat infertility — or even those simply curious about how their own body works — a consensus on the answer would be nice. But the continued probing on both sides may be just as much a boon to women’s health. After all, it’s questions like these that drive science forward.

In his new study, Spradling labeled a spattering of cells in the ovaries of female mice with fluorescent markers to make them visible and watched them as the mice aged. If any labeled cells were egg-producing stem cells, he says, they would spread the fluorescence as they made clusters of new eggs.

“But you never see clusters,” Spradling says. “Not once.”

In the process of this study, though, Spradling made new observations about how egg cells develop into their final form in female mice, published in a second paper this month. As the precursor cells to eggs mature, they lump together into cysts, a phenomenon also seen in the flies that Spradling has spent decades studying. In flies, one cyst eventually forms one egg. But in the mice, he discovered, those cysts break apart and form multiple eggs.

“This actually leads us to propose a new mechanism for what determines the number of oocytes,” says Spradling.  And, of course, that means a better understanding of reproductive biology.

On the side of those who are confident about the existence of adult ovarian stem cells, the field of fertility medicine could be revolutionized if the cells that Tilly has isolated from ovaries can form healthy egg cells that can be fertilized in vitro. These stem cells could also be a tool to study more basic questions on oocyte development and formation or a screening platform for fertility drugs. Tilly is confident enough in the research that he has founded a company, OvaScience, to pursue the commercial and clinical potential of isolating the stem cells.

“The value for the lay public is that we have a new tool in our arsenal,” says Tilly.

Spradling doesn’t argue that continued research in this area isn’t a good thing. “Scientific knowledge doesn’t just come from the proposal of ideas, but also from their rigorous tests,” he says. “I think the most powerful tool we have in medical science is basic research,” he adds, referencing research using cell and animal studies. Investigations of the basics of how and when oocytes form, he says, are the best way forward toward developing ways to improve egg cell formation or development and could even lead to infertility treatments.

So if it finds support from further studies, Spradling’s new work — which states bluntly right in its title that “Female mice lack adult germ-line stem cells” — needn’t be seen as bad news for those dreaming of a breakthrough in understanding fertility. Instead, whether or not egg stem cells end up having clinical value, it’s a step forward in advancing understanding about women’s reproductive biology.

As Spradling puts it: “You have a much better chance of actually helping someone with infertility if you know what the real biology is. Right now, we’re a ways from really understanding the full biology, but we’re making progress.”

1 Direct quote from the third edition of “Human Physiology: An Integrated Approach”, one published by Pearson Education in 2004 and used in medical school classes.  Continue reading

Miscarriage: When a beginning is not a beginning

The “Pregnant Woman” statue
at Ireland Park, Toronto, by Rowan Gillespie

Photo credit: Benson Kua.
[Editor's note: We are pleased to be able to run this post by Dr. Kate Clancy that first appeared at Clancy's Scientific American blog, the wonderful Context and Variation. Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. You can follow her on Twitter--which we strongly recommend, particularly if you're interested in human behavior, evolutionary medicine, and ladybusiness--@KateClancy.]
Over the course of my training to become a biological anthropologist with a specialty in women’s reproductive ecology and life history theory, or ladybusiness expert, I have learned a lot about miscarriage. Only it wasn’t miscarriage, it was spontaneous abortion. Except that some didn’t like the term spontaneous abortion and used intrauterine mortality (Wood, 1994). Or fetal loss. Fetal loss is probably the most common.
There is also pregnancy loss (Holman and Wood, 2001). You can use that term, too. Oh, or a Continue reading

From spiders to breast cancer: Leslie Brunetta talks candidly about her cancer diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up

According to Leslie Brunetta, she now has much more hair than she had last July.
We became aware of Leslie Brunetta because of her book, Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating, co-authored with Catherine L. Craig. Thanks to a piece Leslie wrote for the Concord Monitor (and excerpted here), we also learned that she is a breast cancer survivor. Leslie agreed to an interview about her experience, and in her emailed responses, she candidly talks about her diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up for her cancers, plural: She was diagnosed simultaneously with two types of breast cancer. 
DXS: In your Concord Monitor piece, you describe the link between an understanding of the way evolution happens and some of the advances in modern medicine. What led you to grasp the link between the two?

LB: I think, because I’m not a scientist (I’m an English major), a lot of things that scientists think are obvious strike me as revelations. I somehow had never realized that the search for what would turn out to be DNA began with trying to explain how, in line with the theory of evolution by natural selection, variation arises and traits are passed from generation to generation. As I was figuring out what each chapter in Spider Silk would be about, I tried to think about the questions non-biologists like me would still have about evolution when they got to that point in the book. By the time we got past dragline silk, I realized that we had so far fleshed out the ways that silk proteins could and have evolved at the genetic level. But that explanation probably wouldn’t answer readers’ questions about how, for example, abdominal spinnerets—which are unique to spiders—might have evolved: the evolution of silk is easier to untangle than the evolution of body parts, which is why we focused on it in the first place.

I decided I wanted to write a chapter on “evo-devo,” evolutionary developmental biology, partly because there was a cool genetic study on the development of spinnerets that showed they’ve evolved from limbs. Fortunately, my co-author, Cay Craig, and editor at Yale, Jean Thomson Black, okayed the idea, because that chapter wasn’t in the original proposal. Writing that chapter, I learned why it took so long—nearly a century—to get from Darwin and Mendel to Watson and Crick and then so long again to get to where we are today. If we non-scientists understand something scientific, it’s often how it works, not how a whole string of people over the course of decades building on each other’s work discovered how it works. I knew evolution was the accumulation of gene changes, but, until I wrote that chapter, it hadn’t occurred to me that people began to look for genes because they wanted to understand evolution.

So that was all in the spider part of my life. Then, a few months into the cancer part of my life, I was offered a test called Oncotype DX, which would look at genetic markers in my tumor cells to develop a risk profile that could help me decide whether I should have chemotherapy plus tamoxifen or just tamoxifen. The results turned out to be moot in my case because I had a number of positive lymph nodes, although it was reassuring to find out that the cancer was considered low risk for recurrence. But still—the idea that a genetic test could let some women avoid chemo without taking on extra risk, that’s huge. No one would want to go through chemo if it wasn’t necessary. So by then I was thinking, “Thank you, Darwin!”

And then, coincidentally, the presidential primary season was heating up, and there were a number of serious candidates (well, serious in the sense that they had enough backing to get into the debates) who proudly declared that they had no time for the theory of evolution. And year after year these stupid anti-evolution bills are introduced in various state legislatures. While I was lying on the couch hanging out in the days after chemo sessions, I started thinking, “So, given that you don’t give any credence to Darwin and his ideas, would you refuse on principle to take the Oncotype test or gene-based therapies like Gleevec or Herceptin if you had cancer or if someone in your family had cancer? Somehow I don’t think so.” That argument is not going to convince hard-core denialists (nothing will), but maybe the cognitive dissonance in connection with something as concrete as cancer will make some people who waver want to find out more.

DXS: You mention having been diagnosed with two different forms of cancer, one in each breast. Can you say what each kind was and, if possible, how they differed?

LB: Yes, I unfortunately turned out to be an “interesting” case. This is one arena where, if you possibly can, you want to avoid being interesting. At first it seemed that I had a tiny lesion that was an invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) and that I would “just” need a lumpectomy and radiation. Luckily for me, the doctor reading my mammogram is known as an eagle eye, and she saw a few things that—given the positive finding from the biopsy—concerned her. She recommended an MRI. In fact, even though I switched to another hospital for my surgery, she sent emails there saying I should have an MRI. That turned up “concerning” spots in both breasts, which led to more biopsies, which revealed multiple tiny cancerous lesions. The only reasonable option was then a double mastectomy.

The lesions in the right breast were IDCs. About 70% of breast cancers are diagnosed as IDCs. Those cancers start with the cells lining the milk ducts. The ones in the left breast were invasive lobular carcinomas (ILCs), which start in the lobules at the end of the milk ducts. Only about 10% of breast cancers are ILCs.

Oncologists hate lobular cancer. Unlike ductal cancers, which form as clumps of cells, lobular cancers form as single-file ribbons of cells. The tissue around ductal cancer cells reacts to those cells, which is why someone may feel a lump—she’s (or he’s) not feeling the cancer itself but the inflammation of the tissue around it. And because the cells clump, they show up more readily on mammograms. Not so lobular cancers. They mostly don’t give rise to lumps and they’re hard to spot on mammograms. They snake their way through tissue for quite a while without bothering anything.

In my case, this explains why last spring felt like an unremitting downhill slide. Every time someone looked deeper, they found something worse. It turned out that on my left side, the lobular side, I had multiple positive lymph nodes, which was why I needed not just chemo but also radiation (which usually isn’t given after a mastectomy). That was the side that didn’t even show up much on the mammogram. On the right side, the ductal side, which provoked the initial suspicions, my nodes were clear. I want to write about this soon, because I want to find out more about it. I’ve only recently gotten to the place emotionally where I think I can deal with reading the research papers as opposed to more general information. By the way, the resource that most helped us better understand what my doctors were talking about was Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book.  It was invaluable as we made our way through this process, although it turned out that I had very few decisions to make because there was usually only one good option.   

DXS: As part of your treatment, you had a double mastectomy. One of our goals with this interview is to tell women what some of these experiences with treatment are like. If you’re comfortable doing so, could you tell us a little bit about what a double mastectomy entails and what you do after one in practical terms?

LB: A mastectomy is a strange operation. In a way, it’s more of an emotional and psychological experience than a physical experience. My surgeon, who was fantastic, is a man, and when we discussed the need for the mastectomies he said that I would be surprised at how little pain would be involved and how quick the healing would be. Even though I trusted him a lot by then, my reaction was pretty much, “Like you would know, right?” But he did know. When you think about it, it’s fairly non-invasive surgery. Unless the cancer has spread to the surrounding area, which doesn’t happen very often now due to early detection, no muscle or bone is removed. (Until relatively recently, surgeons removed the major muscle in the chest wall, and sometimes even bone, because they believed it would cut the risk of recurrence. That meant that many women lost function in their arm and also experienced back problems.) None of your organs are touched. They don’t go into your abdominal cavity. Also, until recently, they removed a whole clump of underarm lymph nodes when they did lumpectomies or mastectomies. Now they usually remove just a “sentinel node,” because they know that it will give them a fairly reliable indicator of whether the cancer has spread to the other nodes. That also makes the surgery less traumatic than it used to be.

I opted not to have reconstruction. Reconstruction is a good choice for many women, but I didn’t see many benefits for me and I didn’t like the idea of a more complicated surgery. My surgery was only about two hours. I don’t remember any pain at all afterwards, and my husband says I never complained of any. I was in the hospital for just one night. By the next day, I was on ibuprofen only. The bandages came off two days after the surgery.

That’s shocking, to see your breasts gone and replaced by thin red lines, no matter how well you’ve prepared yourself. It made the cancer seem much more real in some way than it had seemed before. In comparison, the physical recovery from the surgery was fairly minor because I had no infections or complications. There were drains in place for about 10 days to collect serum, which would otherwise collect under the skin, and my husband dealt with emptying them twice a day and measuring the amount. I had to sleep on my back, propped up, because of where the drains were placed, high up on my sides, and I never really got used to that. It was a real relief to have the drains removed.

My surgeon told me to start doing stretching exercises with my arms right away, and that’s really important. I got my full range of motion back within a couple of months. But even though I had my surgery last March, I’ve noticed lately that if I don’t stretch fully, like in yoga, things tighten up. That may be because of the radiation, though, because it’s only on my left side. Things are never quite the same as they were before the surgery, though. Because I did have to have the axillary nodes out on my left side, my lymph system is disrupted. I haven’t had any real problems with lymphedema yet, and I may never, but in the early months I noticed that my hands would swell if I’d been walking around a lot, and I’d have to elevate them to get them to drain back. That rarely happens now. But I’ve been told I need to wear a compression sleeve if I fly because the change in air pressure can cause lymph to collect. Also, I’m supposed to protect my hands and arms from cuts as much as possible. It seems to me that small nicks on my fingers take longer to heal than they used to. So even though most of the time it seems like it’s all over, I guess in those purely mechanical ways it’s never over. It’s not just that you no longer have breasts, it’s also that nerves and lymph channels and bits of tissue are also missing or moved around.

The bigger question is how one deals with now lacking breasts. I’ve decided not to wear prostheses. I can get away with it because I was small breasted, I dress in relatively loose clothes anyway, and I’ve gained confidence over time that no one notices or cares and I care less now if they do notice. But getting that self-confidence took quite a while. Obviously, it has an effect on my sex life, but we have a strong bond and it’s just become a piece of that bond. The biggest thing is that it’s always a bit of a shock when I catch sight of myself naked in a mirror because it’s a reminder that I’ve had cancer and there’s no getting around the fact that that sucks.    

DXS: My mother-in-law completed radiation and chemo for breast cancer last year, and if I remember correctly, she had to go frequently for a period of weeks for radiation. Was that you experience? Can you describe for our readers what the time investment was like and what the process was like?

LB: I went for radiation 5 days a week for about 7 weeks. Three days a week, I’d usually be in and out of the hospital within 45 minutes. One day a week, I met with the radiology oncologist and a nurse to debrief, which was also a form of emotional therapy for me. And one day a week, they laid on a chair massage, and the nurse/massage therapist who gave the massage was great to talk to, so that was more therapy. Radiation was easy compared to chemo. Some people experience skin burning and fatigue, but I was lucky that I didn’t experience either. Because I’m a freelancer, the time investment wasn’t a burden for me. I’m also lucky living where I live, because I could walk to the hospital. It was a pleasant 3-mile round-trip walk, and I think the walking helped me a lot physically and mentally.
DXS: And now to the chemo. My interest in interviewing you about your experience began with a reference you made on Twitter to “chemo brain,” and of course, after reading your evolution-medical advances piece. Can you tell us a little about what the process of receiving chemotherapy is like? How long does it take? How frequently (I know this varies, but your experience)?
LB: Because of my age (I was considered young, which was always nice to hear) and state of general good health, my oncologist put me on a dose-dense AC-T schedule. This meant going for treatment every two weeks over the course of 16 weeks—8 treatment sessions. At the first 4 sessions, I was given Adriamycin and Cytoxan (AC), and the last 4 sessions I was given Taxol (T). The idea behind giving multiple drugs and giving them frequently is that they all attack cancer cells in different ways and—it goes back to evolution—by attacking them frequently and hard on different fronts, you’re trying to avoid selecting for a population that’s resistant to one or more of the drugs. They can give the drugs every two weeks to a lot of patients now because they’ve got drugs to boost the production of white blood cells, which the cancer drugs suppress. After most chemo sessions, I went back the next day for a shot of one of these drugs, Neulasta.

The chemo clinic was, bizarrely, a very relaxing place. The nurses who work there were fantastic, and the nurse assigned to me, Kathy, was always interesting to talk with. She had a great sense of humor, and she was also interested in the science behind everything we were doing, so if I ever had questions she didn’t have ready answers for, she’d find out for me. A lot of patients were there at the same time, but we each had a private space. You’d sit in a big reclining chair. They had TVs and DVDs, but I usually used it as an opportunity to read. My husband sat through the first session with me, and a close friend who had chemo for breast cancer 15 years ago sat through a few other sessions, but once I got used to it, I was comfortable being there alone. Because of the nurses, it never felt lonely.

I’d arrive and settle in. Kathy would take blood for testing red and white blood counts and, I think, liver function and some other things, and she’d insert a needle and start a saline drip while we waited for the results. I’ve always had large veins, so I opted to have the drugs administered through my arm rather than having a port implanted in my chest. Over the course of three to four hours, she’d change the IV bags. Some of the bags were drugs to protect against nausea, so I’d start to feel kind of fuzzy—I don’t think I retained a whole lot of what I read there! The Adriamycin was bright orange; they call it the Red Devil, because it can chew up your veins—sometimes it felt like it was burning but Kathy could stop that by slowing the drip. Otherwise, it was fairly uneventful. I’d have snacks and usually ate lunch while still hooked up.

I was lucky I never had any reactions to any of the drugs, so actually getting the chemo was a surprisingly pleasant experience just because of the atmosphere. On the one hand, you’re aware of all these people around you struggling with cancer and you know things aren’t going well for some of them, so it’s heartbreaking, and also makes you consider, sometimes fearfully, your own future no matter how well you’re trying to brace yourself up. But at the same time, the people working there are so positive, but not in a Pollyannaish-false way, that they helped me as I tried to stay positive. The social worker stopped in with each patient every session, and she was fantastic—I could talk out any problems or fears I had with her, and that helped a huge amount.

DXS: Would you be able to run us through a timeline of the physical effects of chemotherapy after an infusion? How long does it take before it hits hardest? My mother-in-law told me that her biggest craving, when she could eat, was for carb-heavy foods like mashed potatoes and for soups, like vegetable soup. What was your experience with that?

LB: My biggest fear when I first learned I would need chemo was nausea. My oncologist told us that they had nausea so well controlled that over the past few years, she had only had one or two patients who had experienced it. As with the surgeon’s prediction about mastectomy pain, this turned out to be true: I never had even a single moment of nausea.

But there were all sorts of other effects. For the first few days after a session, the most salient effects were actually from the mix of drugs I took to stave off nausea. I generally felt pretty fuzzy, but not necessarily sleepy—part of the mix was steroids, so you’re a little hyped. There’s no way I’d feel safe driving on those days, for example. I’d sleep well the first three nights because I took Ativan, which has an anti-nausea effect. But except for those days, my sleep was really disrupted. Partly that’s because, I’m guessing, the chemo hits certain cells in your brain and partly it’s because you get thrown into chemical menopause, so there were a lot of night hot flashes. Even though I’d already started into menopause, this chemo menopause was a lot more intense and included all the symptoms regularly associated with menopause.

By the end of the first session, I was feeling pretty joyful because it was much less bad than I had thought it would be. By the second week in the two-week cycle, I felt relatively normal. But even though it never got awful, the effects started to accumulate. My hair started to fall out the morning I was going to an award ceremony for Spider Silk. It was ok at the ceremony, but we shaved it off that night. I decided not to wear a wig. First, it was the summer, and it would have been hot. Second, I usually have close to a buzz cut, and I can’t imagine anyone would make a wig that would look anything like my hair. My kids’ attitude was that everyone would know something was wrong anyway, so I should just be bald, and that helped a lot. But it’s hard to see in people’s eyes multiple times a day their realization that you’re in a pretty bad place. Also, it’s not just your head hair that goes. So do your eyebrows, your eyelashes, your pubic hair, and most of the tiny hairs all over your skin. And as your skin cells are affected by the chemo (the chemo hits all fast-reproducing cells), your skin itself gets more sensitive and then is not protected by those tiny hairs. I remember a lot of itching. And strange things like my head sticking to my yoga mat and my reading glasses sticking to the side of my head instead of sliding over my ears.

I never lost my appetite, but I did have food cravings during the AC cycles. I wanted sushi and seaweed salad, of all things. And steak. My sense of taste went dull, so I also wanted things that tasted strong and had crunch. I stopped drinking coffee and alcohol, partly because of the sleep issues but partly because it didn’t taste very good anyway. I drank loads of water on the advice of the oncologist, the nurses, and my acupuncturist, and I think that helped a lot.

During the second cycle, I developed a fever. That was scary. I was warned that if I ever developed a fever, I should call the oncologist immediately, no matter the time of day or day of week. The problem is that your immune response is knocked down by the chemo, so what would normally be a small bacterial infection has the potential to rage out of control. I was lucky. We figured out that the source of infection was a hemorrhoid—the Adriamycin was beginning to chew into my digestive tract, a well-known side effect. (Having to pay constant attention to yet another usually private part of the body just seemed totally unfair by this point.) Oral antibiotics took care of it, which was great because I avoided having to go into the hospital and all the risks entailed with getting heavy-duty IV antibiotic treatment. And we were also able to keep on schedule with the chemo regimen, which is what you hope for.

After that, I became even more careful about avoiding infection, so I avoided public places even more than I had been. I’m very close to a couple of toddlers, and I couldn’t see them for weeks because they were in one of those toddler constant-viral stages, and I really missed them.

The Taxol seems to be much less harsh than the AC regimen, so a lot of these side effects started to ease off a bit by the second 8 weeks, which was certainly a relief.

I was lucky that I didn’t really have mouth sores or some of the other side effects. Some of this is, I think, just because besides the cancer I don’t have any other health issues. Some of it is because my husband took over everything and I don’t have a regular job, so I had the luxury of concentrating on doing what my body needed. I tried to walk every day, and I slept when I needed to, ate when and what I needed to, and went to yoga class when my immune system was ok. I also went to acupuncture every week. I know the science is iffy on that, but I think it helped me with the side effects, even if it was the placebo effect at work (I’m a big fan of the placebo effect). We also both had extraordinary emotional support from many friends and knew we could call lots of people if we needed anything. That’s huge when you’re in this kind of situation.

Currently, I’m still dealing with some minor joint pains, mostly in my wrists and feet. I wasn’t expecting this problem, but my oncologist says it’s not uncommon: they think it’s because your immune system has to re-find its proper level of function, and it can go into overdrive and set up inflammation in the joints. That’s gradually easing off, though.

Most people don’t have it as easy as I did in terms of the medical, financial, and emotional resources I had to draw on. I’m very mindful of that and very grateful.

DXS: You say that you had “few terrible side effects” and a “very cushy home situation.” I’m sure any woman would like to at least be able to experience the latter while dealing with a full-body chemical attack. What were some factors that made it “cushy” that women might be able to talk to their families or caregivers about replicating for them?

LB: As I’ve said, some of it is just circumstance. For example, my kids were old enough to be pretty self-sufficient and old enough to understand what was going on, which meant both that they needed very little from me in terms of care and also that they were less scared than they might have been if they were younger. My husband happens to be both very competent (more competent than I am) around the house and very giving. I live in Cambridge, MA, where I could actually make choices about where I wanted to be treated at each phase and know I’d get excellent, humane care and where none of the facilities I went to was more than about 20 minutes away.

Some things that women might have some control over and that their families might help nudge them toward:

  • Find doctors you trust. Ask a lot of questions and make sure you understand the answers. But don’t get hung up on survival or recurrence statistics. There’s no way to know for sure what your individual outcome will be. Go for the treatment that you and your doctors believe will give you the best chance, and then assume as much as possible that your outcome will be good.
  • Make sure you talk regularly with a social worker or other therapist who specializes in dealing with breast cancer patients. If you have fears or worries that you don’t want to talk to your partner or family about, here’s where you’ll get lots of help.
  • Find compatible friends who have also had cancer to talk to. I had friends who showed me their mastectomy scars, who showed me their reconstructions, who told me about their experiences with chemo and radiation, who told me about what life after treatment was like (is still like decades later…). And none of them told me, “You should…” They all just told me what was hard for them and what worked for them and let me figure out what worked for me. Brilliant.
  • Try to get some exercise even if you don’t feel like it. It was often when I felt least like moving around that a short walk made me feel remarkably better. But I would forget that, so my husband would remind me. Ask someone to walk with you if you’re feeling weak. Getting your circulation going seems to help the body process the chemo drugs and the waste products they create. For the same reason, drink lots of water.
  • Watch funny movies together. Laughter makes a huge difference.
  • Pamper yourself as much as possible. Let people take care of you and help as much as they’re willing. But don’t be afraid to say no to anything that you don’t want or that’s too much.

Family members and caregivers should also take care of themselves by making some time for themselves and talking to social workers or therapists if they feel the need. It’s a big, awful string of events for everyone involved, not just the patient.

DXS: In the midst of all of this, you seem to have written a fascinating book about spiders and their webs. Were you able to work while undergoing your treatments? Were there times that were better than others for attending to work? Could work be a sort of occupational therapy, when it was possible for you to do it, to keep you engaged?

LB: The book had been published about 6 months before my diagnosis. The whole cancer thing really interfered not with the writing, but with my efforts to publicize it. I had started to build toward a series of readings and had to abandon that effort. I had also started a proposal for a new book and had to put that aside. I had one radio interview in the middle of chemo, which was kind of daunting but I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, and when I listen to it now, I can hear my voice sounds kind of shaky. It went well, but I was exhausted afterwards. Also invigorated, though—it made me feel like I hadn’t disappeared into the cancer. I had two streams of writing going on, both of which were therapeutic. I sent email updates about the cancer treatment to a group of friends—that was definitely psychological therapy. I also tried to keep the Spider Silk blog up to date by summarizing related research papers and other spider silk news—that was intellectual therapy. I just worked on them when I felt I wanted to. The second week of every cycle my head was usually reasonably clear.

I don’t really know whether I have chemo brain. I notice a lot of names-and-other-proper-nouns drop. But whether that’s from the chemo per se, or from the hormone changes associated with the chemically induced menopause, or just from emotional overload and intellectual distraction, I don’t know. I find that I’m thinking more clearly week by week.

DXS: What is the plan for your continued follow-up? How long will it last, what is the frequency of visits, sorts of tests, etc.?

LB: I’m on tamoxifen and I’ll be on that for probably two years and then either stay on that or go onto an aromatase inhibitor [Ed. note: these drugs block production of estrogen and are used for estrogen-sensitive cancers.] for another three years. I’ll see one of the cancer doctors every three months for at least a year, I think. They’ll ask me questions and do a physical exam and take blood samples to test for tumor markers. At some point the visits go to every six months.

For self-care, I’m exercising more, trying to lose some weight, and eating even better than I was before.

DXS: Last…if you’re comfortable detailing it…what led to your diagnosis in the first place?

LB: My breast cancer was uncovered by my annual mammogram. I’ve worried about cancer, as I suppose most people do. But I never really worried about breast cancer. My mother has 10 sisters and neither she nor any of them ever had breast cancer. I have about 20 older female cousins—I was 50 when I was diagnosed last year–and as far as I know none of them have had breast cancer. I took birth control pills for less than a year decades ago. Never smoked. Light drinker. Not overweight. Light exerciser. I breastfed both kids, although not for a full year. Never took replacement hormones. Never worked in a dangerous environment. Never had suspicious mammograms before. So on paper, I was at very low risk as far as I can figure out. After I finished intensive treatment, I was tested for BRCA1 and BRCA2 (because mutations there are associated with cancer in both breasts) and no mutations were found. Unless or until some new genetic markers are found and one of them applies to me, I think we’ll never know why I got breast cancer, other than the fact that I’ve lived long enough to get cancer. There was no lump. Even between the suspicious mammogram and ultrasound and the biopsy, none of the doctors examining me could feel a lump or anything irregular. It was a year ago this week that I got the news that the first biopsy was positive. In some ways, because I feel really good now, it’s hard to believe that this year ever happened. But in other ways, the shock of it is still with me and with the whole family. Things are good for now, though, and although I feel very unlucky that this happened in the first place, I feel extremely lucky with the medical care I received and the support I got from family and friends and especially my husband.
——————————————————————–
Leslie Brunetta’s articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Technology Review, and the Sewanee Review as well as on NPR and elsewhere. She is co-author, with Catherine L. Craig, of Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating (Yale University Press).

Anorexia nervosa, neurobiology, and family-based treatment

Via Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: Sandra Mann
By Harriet Brown, DXS contributor

Back in 1978, psychoanalyst Hilde Bruch published the first popular book on anorexia nervosa. In The Golden Cage, she described anorexia as a psychological illness caused by environmental factors: sexual abuse, over-controlling parents, fears about growing up, and/or other psychodynamic factors. Bruch believed young patients needed to be separated from their families (a concept that became known as a “parentectomy”) so therapists could help them work through the root issues underlying the illness. Then, and only then, patients would choose to resume eating. If they were still alive.

Bruch’s observations dictated eating-disorders treatments for decades, treatments that led to spectacularly ineffective results. Only about 35% of people with anorexia recovered; another 20% died, of starvation or suicide; and the rest lived with some level of chronic illness for the rest of their lives.

Not a great track record, overall, and especially devastating for women, who suffer from anorexia at a rate of 10 times that of men. Luckily, we know a lot more about anorexia and other eating disorders now than we did in 1978.

“It’s Not About the Food”

In Bruch’s day, anorexia wasn’t the only illness attributed to faulty parenting and/or trauma. Therapists saw depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and homosexuality (long considered a psychiatric “illness”) as ailments of the mind alone. Thanks to the rising field of behavioral neuroscience, we’ve begun to untangle the ways brain circuitry, neural architecture, and other biological processes contribute to these disorders. Most experts now agree that depression and anxiety can be caused by, say, neurotransmitter imbalances as much as unresolved emotional conflicts, and treat them accordingly. But the field of eating-disorders treatment has been slow to jump on the neurobiology bandwagon. When my daughter was diagnosed with anorexia in 2005, for instance, we were told to find her a therapist and try to get our daughter to eat “without being the food police,” because, as one therapist informed us, “It’s not about the food.”

Actually, it is about the food. Especially when you’re starving.

Ancel Keys’ 1950 Semi-Starvation Study tracked the effects of starvation and subsequent re-feeding on 36 healthy young men, all conscientious objectors who volunteered for the experiment. Keys was drawn to the subject during World War II, when millions in war-torn Europe – especially those in concentration camps – starved for years. One of Keys’ most interesting findings was that starvation itself, followed by re-feeding after a period of prolonged starvation, produced both physical and psychological symptoms, including depression, preoccupation with weight and body image, anxiety, and obsessions with food, eating, and cooking—all symptoms we now associate with anorexia. Re-feeding the volunteers eventuallyreversed most of the symptoms. However, this approach proved to be difficult on a psychological level, and in some ways more difficult than the starvation period. These results were a clear illustration of just how profound the effects of months of starvation were on the body and mind.

Alas, Keys’ findings were pretty much ignored by the field of eating-disorders treatment for 40-some years, until new technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and research gave new context to his work. We now know there is no single root cause for eating disorders. They’re what researchers call multi-factorial, triggered by a perfect storm of factors that probably differs for each person who develops an eating disorder. “Personality characteristics, the environment you live in, your genetic makeup—it’s like a cake recipe,” says Daniel le Grange, Ph.D., director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of Chicago. “All the ingredients have to be there for that person to develop anorexia.”

One of those ingredients is genetics. Twenty years ago, the Price Foundation sponsored a project that collected DNA samples from thousands of people with eating disorders, their families, and control participants. That data, along with information from the 2006 Swedish Twin Study, suggests that anorexia is highly heritable. “Genes play a substantial role in liability to this illness,” says Cindy Bulik, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and director of the University of North Carolina’s Eating Disorders Program. And while no one has yet found a specific anorexia gene, researchers are focusing on an area of chromosome 1 that shows important gene linkages.

Certain personality traits associated with anorexia are probably heritable as well. “Anxiety, inhibition, obsessionality, and perfectionism seem to be present in families of people with an eating disorder,” explains Walter Kaye, M.D., who directs the Eating Disorders Treatment and Research Program at the University of California-San Diego. Another ingredient is neurobiology—literally, the way your brain is structured and how it works. Dr. Kaye’s team at UCSD uses fMRI technology to map blood flow in people’s brains as they think of or perform a task. In one study, Kaye and his colleagues looked at the brains of people with anorexia, people recovered from anorexia, and people who’d never had an eating disorder as they played a gambling game. Participants were asked to guess a number and were rewarded for correct guesses with money or “punished” for incorrect or no guesses by losing money.

Participants in the control group responded to wins and losses by “living in the moment,” wrote researchers: “That is, they made a guess and then moved on to the next task.” But people with anorexia, as well as people who’d recovered from anorexia, showed greater blood flow to the dorsal caudate, an area of the brain that helps link actions and their outcomes, as well as differences in their brains’ dopamine pathways. “People with anorexia nervosa do not live in the moment,” concluded Kaye. “They tend to have exaggerated and obsessive worry about the consequences of their behaviors, looking for rules when there are none, and they are overly concerned about making mistakes.” This study was the first to show altered pathways in the brain even in those recovered from anorexia, suggesting that inherent differences in the brain’s architecture and signaling systems help trigger the illness in the first place.

Food Is Medicine

Some of the best news to come out of research on anorexia is a new therapy aimed at kids and teens. Family-based treatment (FBT), also known as the Maudsley approach, was developed at the Maudsley Hospital in London by Ivan Eisler and Christopher Dare, family therapists who watched nurses on the inpatient eating-disorders unit get patients to eat by sitting with them, talking to them, rubbing their backs, and supporting them. Eisler and Dare wondered how that kind of effective encouragement could be used outside the hospital.

Their observations led them to develop family-based treatment, or FBT, a three-phase treatment for teens and young adults that sidesteps the debate on etiology and focuses instead on recovery. “FBT is agnostic on cause,” says Dr. Le Grange. During phase one, families (usually parents) take charge of a child’s eating, with a goal of fully restoring weight (rather than get to the “90 percent of ideal body weight” many programs use as a benchmark). In phase two, families gradually transfer responsibility for eating back to the teen. Phase three addresses other problems or issues related to normal adolescent development, if there are any.

FBT is a pragmatic approach that recognizes that while people with anorexia are in the throes of acute malnourishment, they can’t choose to eat. And that represents one of the biggest shifts in thinking about eating disorders. The DSM-IV, the most recent “bible” of psychiatric treatment, lists as the first symptom of anorexia “a refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height.” That notion of refusal is key to how anorexia has been seen, and treated, in the past: as a refusal to eat or gain weight. An acting out. A choice. Which makes sense within the psychodynamic model of cause.

But it doesn’t jibe with the research, which suggests that anorexia is more of an inability to eat than a refusal. Forty-five years ago, Aryeh Routtenberg, then (and still) a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, discovered that when he gave rats only brief daily access to food but let them run as much as they wanted on wheels, they would gradually eat less and less, and run more and more. In fact, they would run without eating until they died, a paradigm Routtenberg called activity-based anorexia (ABA). Rats with ABA seemed to be in the grip of a profound physiological imbalance, one that overrode the normal biological imperatives of hunger and self-preservation. ABA in rats suggests that however it starts, once the cycle of restricting and/or compulsive exercising passes a certain threshold, it takes on a life of its own. Self-starvation is no longer (if it ever was) a choice, but a compulsion to the death.

That’s part of the thinking in FBT. Food is the best medicine for people with anorexia, but they can’t choose to eat. They need someone else to make that choice for them. Therapists don’t sit at the table with patients, but parents do. And parents love and know their children. Like the nurses at the Maudsley Hospital, they find ways to get kids to eat. In a sense, what parents do is outshout the anorexia “voice” many sufferers report hearing, a voice in their heads that tells them not to eat and berates them when they do. Parents take the responsibility for making the choice to eat away from the sufferer, who may insist she’s choosing not to eat but who, underneath the illness, is terrified and hungry.

The best aspect of FBT is that it works. Not for everyone, but for the majority of kids and teens. Several randomized controlled studies of FBT and “treatment as usual” (talk therapy without pressure to eat) show recovery rates of 80 to 90 percent with FBT—a huge improvement over previous recovery rates. A study at the University of Chicago is looking at adapting the treatment for young adults; early results are promising.

The most challenging aspect of FBT is that it’s hard to find. Relatively few therapists in the U.S. are trained in the approach. When our daughter got sick, my husband and I couldn’t find a local FBT therapist. So we cobbled together a team that included our pediatrician, a therapist, and lots of friends who supported our family through the grueling work of re-feeding our daughter. Today she’s a healthy college student with friends, a boyfriend, career goals, and a good relationship with us.

A few years ago, Dr. Le Grange and his research partner, Dr. James Lock of Stanford, created a training institute that certifies a handful of FBT therapists each year. (For a list of FBT providers, visit the Maudsley Parents website.) It’s a start. But therapists are notoriously slow to adopt new treatments, and FBT is no exception. Some therapists find FBT controversial because it upends the conventional view of eating disorders and treatments. Some cling to the psychodynamic view of eating disorders despite the lack of evidence. Still, many in the field have at least heard of FBT and Kaye’s neurobiological findings, even if they don’t believe in them yet.

Change comes slowly. But it comes.

* * *

Harriet Brown teaches magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in Syracuse, New York. Her latest book is Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia (William Morrow, 2010).

be there for that person to develop anorexia.”

One of those ingredients is genetics. Twenty years ago, the Price Foundation sponsored a project that collected DNA samples from thousands of people with eating disorders, their families, and control participants. That data, along with information from the 2006 Swedish Twin Study, suggests that anorexia is highly heritable. “Genes play a substantial role in liability to this illness,” says Cindy Bulik, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and director of the University of North Carolina’s Eating Disorders Program. And while no one has yet found a specific anorexia gene, researchers are focusing on an area of chromosome 1 that shows important gene linkages.
Certain personality traits associated with anorexia are probably heritable as well. “Anxiety, inhibition, obsessionality, and perfectionism seem to be present in families of people with an eating disorder,” explains Walter Kaye, M.D., who directs the Eating Disorders Treatment and Research Program at the University of California-San Diego. Another ingredient is neurobiology—literally, the way your brain is structured and how it works. Dr. Kaye’s team at UCSD uses fMRI technology to map blood flow in people’s brains as they think of or perform a task. In one study, Kaye and his colleagues looked at the brains of people with anorexia, people recovered from anorexia, and people who’d never had an eating disorder as they played a gambling game. Participants were asked to guess a number and were rewarded for correct guesses with money or “punished” for incorrect or no guesses by losing money.
Participants in the control group responded to wins and losses by “living in the moment,” wrote researchers: “That is, they made a guess and then moved on to the next task.” But people with anorexia, as well as people who’d recovered from anorexia, showed greater blood flow to the dorsal caudate, an area of the brain that helps link actions and their outcomes, as well as differences in their brains’ dopamine pathways. “People with anorexia nervosa do not live in the moment,” concluded Kaye. “They tend to have exaggerated and obsessive worry about the consequences of their behaviors, looking for rules when there are none, and they are overly concerned about making mistakes.” This study was the first to show altered pathways in the brain even in those recovered from anorexia, suggesting that inherent differences in the brain’s architecture and signaling systems help trigger the illness in the first place.
Food Is Medicine
Some of the best news to come out of research on anorexia is a new therapy aimed at kids and teens. Family-based treatment (FBT), also known as the Maudsley approach, was developed at the Maudsley Hospital in London by Ivan Eisler and Christopher Dare, family therapists who watched nurses on the inpatient eating-disorders unit get patients to eat by sitting with them, talking to them, rubbing their backs, and supporting them. Eisler and Dare wondered how that kind of effective encouragement could be used outside the hospital.
Their observations led them to develop family-based treatment, or FBT, a three-phase treatment for teens and young adults that sidesteps the debate on etiology and focuses instead on recovery. “FBT is agnostic on cause,” says Dr. Le Grange. During phase one, families (usually parents) take charge of a child’s eating, with a goal of fully restoring weight (rather than get to the “90 percent of ideal body weight” many programs use as a benchmark). In phase two, families gradually transfer responsibility for eating back to the teen. Phase three addresses other problems or issues related to normal adolescent development, if there are any.
FBT is a pragmatic approach that recognizes that while people with anorexia are in the throes of acute malnourishment, they can’t choose to eat. And that represents one of the biggest shifts in thinking about eating disorders. The DSM-IV, the most recent “bible” of psychiatric treatment, lists as the first symptom of anorexia “a refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height.” That notion of refusal is key to how anorexia has been seen, and treated, in the past: as a refusal to eat or gain weight. An acting out. A choice. Which makes sense within the psychodynamic model of cause.
But it doesn’t jibe with the research, which suggests that anorexia is more of an inability to eat than a refusal. Forty-five years ago, Aryeh Routtenberg, then (and still) a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, discovered that when he gave rats only brief daily access to food but let them run as much as they wanted on wheels, they would gradually eat less and less, and run more and more. In fact, they would run without eating until they died, a paradigm Routtenberg called activity-based anorexia (ABA). Rats with ABA seemed to be in the grip of a profound physiological imbalance, one that overrode the normal biological imperatives of hunger and self-preservation. ABA in rats suggests that however it starts, once the cycle of restricting and/or compulsive exercising passes a certain threshold, it takes on a life of its own. Self-starvation is no longer (if it ever was) a choice, but a compulsion to the death.
That’s part of the thinking in FBT. Food is the best medicine for people with anorexia, but they can’t choose to eat. They need someone else to make that choice for them. Therapists don’t sit at the table with patients, but parents do. And parents love and know their children. Like the nurses at the Maudsley Hospital, they find ways to get kids to eat. In a sense, what parents do is outshout the anorexia “voice” many sufferers report hearing, a voice in their heads that tells them not to eat and berates them when they do. Parents take the responsibility for making the choice to eat away from the sufferer, who may insist she’s choosing not to eat but who, underneath the illness, is terrified and hungry.
The best aspect of FBT is that it works. Not for everyone, but for the majority of kids and teens. Several randomized controlled studies of FBT and “treatment as usual” (talk therapy without pressure to eat) show recovery rates of 80 to 90 percent with FBT—a huge improvement over previous recovery rates. A study at the University of Chicago is looking at adapting the treatment for young adults; early results are promising.
The most challenging aspect of FBT is that it’s hard to find. Relatively few therapists in the U.S. are trained in the approach. When our daughter got sick, my husband and I couldn’t find a local FBT therapist. So we cobbled together a team that included our pediatrician, a therapist, and lots of friends who supported our family through the grueling work of re-feeding our daughter. Today she’s a healthy college student with friends, a boyfriend, career goals, and a good relationship with us.
A few years ago, Dr. Le Grange and his research partner, Dr. James Lock of Stanford, created a training institute that certifies a handful of FBT therapists each year. (For a list of FBT providers, visit the Maudsley Parents website.) It’s a start. But therapists are notoriously slow to adopt new treatments, and FBT is no exception. Some therapists find FBT controversial because it upends the conventional view of eating disorders and treatments. Some cling to the psychodynamic view of eating disorders despite the lack of evidence. Still, many in the field have at least heard of FBT and Kaye’s neurobiological findings, even if they don’t believe in them yet.
Change comes slowly. But it comes.
* * *
Harriet Brown teaches magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in Syracuse, New York. Her latest book is Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia (William Morrow, 2010).

The World Will Not End Tomorrow

The world will not end tomorrow.

The Sun will rise on the morning of December 22 and find most of humanity still living. I can say that with a great deal of confidence, though my scientist’s brain tells me I should say the world “probably” won’t end tomorrow. After all, there’s a tiny chance, a minuscule probability…but it’s so small we don’t have to worry about it, just like we don’t have to worry about being struck down by a meteorite while walking down the street. It could happen, but it almost certainly won’t.

My confidence comes from science. I know it sounds hokey, but it’s true. There’s no scientific reason—absolutely none—to think the world will end tomorrow. Yes, the world will end one day, and Earth has experienced some serious cataclysms in the past that wiped out a significant amount of life, but none of those things are going to happen tomorrow. (I’ll come back to those points in a bit.) We’re very good at science, after centuries of work, and the kinds of violent events that could seriously threaten us won’t take us by surprise.

Why the World Won’t End

So where does this stuff come from? Whose idea was it that “the end of the world will be on December 21, 2012″? The culprit, according to those who buy into the idea, is that the end of the world was predicted by the Mayas in their mythology, and codified in their calendar. However, it’s pretty safe to say that the Mayas didn’t really predict the end of the world, even though I don’t know much about the great Mayan civilization that existed on the Yucatan peninsula in what is now Mexico from antiquity until the Spanish conquest.

See this calendar? It’s being touted as a Mayan
calendar in articles about the “end of the world”,
but it ain’t Mayan. It’s an Aztec calendar. Please
don’t mix up civilizations.

The Mayas were the only people in the Americas known to have developed a complete written language, which is part of how we know a lot about them despite their destruction by the hand of European invaders. In particular, we know about their calendar, and the divisions they used. We use what’s called a decimal system for numbers, based on the 10 fingers of our hands. That’s why we break things up into decades (ten years) and centuries (ten decades), as well as a millennium (ten centuries). The Mayas liked different divisions of time: their b’ak’tun is approximately 394 years, and they placed a certain significance on a cycle of 13 b’ak’tuns. (I suspect the Klingon language in Star Trek borrowed some of its vocabulary from ancient Mayan.)

In the “Long Count,” one version of the Mayan calendar known to us, the present world came to be on August 11, 3114 BC. That world will end at the close of the 13th b’ak’tun from that creation day, which happens to be December 21, 2012. However, there’s good reason to think that the Mayas didn’t believe this would be the end of all things: other calendars exist that refer to an even longer span of years, stretching thousands of years into the future!

Even more importantly, though: the Mayan cosmology (their view of the universe) was cyclic, as in many other religions. This world was not the first in this cosmology, and it won’t be the last. In such a view, the true universe is eternal, and the cycles of time are a kind of divine rebooting, which don’t really end anything. The end of the 13th b’ak’tun might be a transformative event in the Maya cosmology, but it’s not the end of the world.

Frankly, I’m not sure why we should care even if the Mayas did believe this was the end of the world. As I said previously, there’s no scientific reason to think the world will end tomorrow. But maybe you might think there’s a non-scientific reason—divine intervention to wipe out the Earth, perhaps. However, I’d venture to guess that most of us don’t adhere to the Mayan religion. Their gods are not the gods most people worship. The prophesied arrival on Earth of Bolon Yookte’ K’Uh, the Nine-Footed God is not something central to my belief system, and probably not yours either.

In fact, millennial thinking is far more a Christian thing than it is a Mayan thing—or frankly most other religions. When people talk about the supposed end of the world tomorrow, they use the Christian terminology: Armageddon (referring to Megiddo, a place in northern Israel, named in the Book of Revelation as the site of the last battle) or the apocalypse (literally the “uncovering”, when all that was hidden becomes revealed). These weren’t concepts in the Mayan religion, and nothing in the Christian religion says the world will end on December 21, 2012.

The World Will End…Eventually

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
–Robert Frost

Science tells us the world won’t end tomorrow. It also tells us the Mayan cosmology is wrong: time doesn’t go in cycles forever. Earth began 4.5 billion years ago, and will end in about 5 billion years more—at least as a livable world, which is what counts for us. In between its beginning and end, it is defined by cycles: the length of rotation (days) and the time to travel around the Sun (years), with its associated seasons. Other cycles are pretty arbitrary: centuries and b’ak’tuns don’t have any particular significance in terms of astronomical events.

The end of the world as we know it will happen in about 5 billion years, when the Sun ceases fusing hydrogen into helium in its core. When that happens, the Sun will grow into a red giant star, swallowing up Mercury and Venus. Earth probably won’t be devoured, but with the Sun’s surface so much closer, things will become distinctly unpleasant. It’s unlikely the atmosphere or oceans could survive, meaning the end of most life. (Some microbes could probably continue to live underground. That kind of thing is a story for another day.) However, 5 billion years is a long time from now.
Could another cataclysm overtake us before that time? Yes. As you may know, about 65 million years ago, a large asteroid smashed into Earth, an event that at least helped end the reign of dinosaurs, and ushering the extinction of many other species.

Unfortunately, we can’t rule out the possibility that could happen again. There are enough asteroids and comets in our Solar System that could eventually cross orbital paths with Earth; if a large specimen collided with us, it would be devastating.

However, we’re talking about tomorrow. No asteroid will strike Earth on December 21: astronomers keep careful track of everything near our planet, and nothing we know of is on a collision course with Earth for the near future. Asteroids and comets are really the only things we have to worry about doing serious damage for life on Earth, but you can sleep easy tonight and tomorrow night: we’re safe.

If you could somehow see the planets during
daylight hours, here’s how they would
appear tomorrow at noon. There’s no
alignment. (You can see this for yourself
using the free planetarium program
Stellarium.)

Some people have talked about fairly far-fetched ideas: alignments of planets, or lining up Earth, the Sun, and the center of the galaxy. The planets of the Solar System aren’t aligned tomorrow—the image shows where several of them are in relation to the Sun at noon. Jupiter isn’t anywhere close to the planets you see. You’d need a pretty strong imagination to say they’re lined up in any way: while they do lie along a line, that’s the way they always are, since they all orbit the Sun more or less in the same plane. Alignment with the galactic center is even more simple to dismiss: about once a year, the Sun appears aligned with the galactic center in the sky. And nothing happens.

Another explanation I’ve seen involves a mysterious planet called “Nibiru” or “Planet X,” which either will collide with Earth or otherwise generate a baleful influence. Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, has a lot about the Nibiru nonsense, so I won’t repeat what he says. Suffice to say Nibiru doesn’t exist: there’s no evidence for it, and (surprise!) it’s not anything that came from Mayan mythology to begin with, so there’s no reason to associate it with a December 21 apocalypse.

A Positive Conclusion

Science, I think, is reassuring in the midst of panic. Why people like to scare themselves and others with misguided ideas of the world’s end, I am not qualified to say. I don’t know how many people are convinced the world will end tomorrow, compared with the number of people who are either wholly skeptical or those who might be a little worried. However, let me reassure you again: the world will not end tomorrow. We can take comfort in the knowledge that December 22 will come, 2012 will end, and a new year—a new cycle—will begin. Any remaking of the world is up to us, so rather than worrying about imaginary apocalypses, let’s commit to improving the lives of those who live on our magnificent planet.