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Your Brain May Be Sabotaging Your Diet

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At any given moment, about 45 million Americans are on a diet, and more than 23 million are in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction. Trying to break a bad habit is an uphill battle to begin with in a culture of high stress, heavy substance use, and super-sized sodas. But it turns out, our brains aren’t helping either. A new paper published in the journal Current Biology by researchers at Johns Hopkins University reports that our brains actually push us to stick with bad habits.

It’s all about reward. Junk food, booze, drugs, sex, and gambling all push our brains’ (metaphorical) pleasure buttons, triggering a flood of feel-good dopamine. In some ways, your brain is like a small child. When it gets something good—in this case, a whole lot of dopamine—it wants more. You may know that drugs are bad or that cheeseburgers are not a health food, but your brain doesn’t care. More drugs, your brain tells you. More cheeseburgers. Remember cheeseburgers? We should have one of those. With drugs on it. 

"We don't have complete control over what we pay attention to," senior author Susan M. Courtney said in a press release. "We don't realize our past experience biases our attention to certain things." 

Courtney and her colleagues recruited 20 participants to play a simple computer game. The task: Find specific items on a screen filled with colored objects. The reward: cash. Players got $1.25 for each red object and $0.25 for each green object they spotted. One day later, the players came back in and played again while researchers monitored their brains. This time the players were looking for specific shapes, not colors, and there would be no cash prize. 

While the players clearly understood the new terms of the game, their brains automatically focused on red objects anyway—and the dopamine floodgates opened. Eventually, the players were able to find the shapes they were looking for, but it took them longer and they were more easily distracted. (Red!)

"What's surprising here is people are not getting rewarded and not expecting a reward," Courtney said in the press release. "There's something about past reward association that's still causing a dopamine release. That stimulus has become incorporated into the reward system."

It’s not hopeless. Addictions can be overcome, healthy eating can happen, and these new findings may someday help facilitate both. In the meantime, don’t beat yourself up too much. 

"I could choose healthy food or unhealthy food, but my attention keeps being drawn to fettuccini Alfredo," Courtney said. "What we tend to look at, think about and pay attention to is whatever we've done in the past that was rewarded." 

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New Patient Test Could Suggest Whether Therapy or Meds Will Work Better for Anxiety
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Like many psychological disorders, there's no one-size-fits-all treatment for patients with anxiety. Some might benefit from taking antidepressants, which boost mood-affecting brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Others might respond better to therapy, and particularly a form called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.

Figuring out which form of treatment works best often requires months of trial and error. But experts may have developed a quick clinical test to expedite this process, suggests a new study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have noted that patients with higher levels of anxiety exhibit more electrical activity in their brains when they make a mistake. They call this phenomenon error-related negativity, or ERN, and measure it using electroencephalography (EEG), a test that records the brain's electric signals.

“People with anxiety disorders tend to show an exaggerated neural response to their own mistakes,” the paper’s lead author, UIC psychiatrist Stephanie Gorka, said in a news release. “This is a biological internal alarm that tells you that you've made a mistake and that you should modify your behavior to prevent making the same mistake again. It is useful in helping people adapt, but for those with anxiety, this alarm is much, much louder.”

Gorka and her colleagues wanted to know whether individual differences in ERN could predict treatment outcomes, so they recruited 60 adult volunteers with various types of anxiety disorders. Also involved was a control group of 26 participants with no history of psychological disorders.

Psychiatrists gauged subjects’ baseline ERN levels by having them wear an EEG cap while performing tricky computer tasks. Ultimately, they all made mistakes thanks to the game's challenging nature. Then, randomized subjects with anxiety disorders were instructed to take an SSRI antidepressant every day for three months, or receive weekly cognitive behavioral therapy for the same duration. (Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of evidence-based talk therapy that forces patients to challenge maladaptive thoughts and develop coping mechanisms to modify their emotions and behavior.)

After three months, the study's patients took the same computer test while wearing EEG caps. Researchers found that those who'd exhibited higher ERN levels at the study's beginning had reduced anxiety levels if they'd been treated with CBT compared to those treated with medication. This might be because the structured form of therapy is all about changing behavior: Those with enhanced ERN might be more receptive to CBT than other patients, as they're already preoccupied with the way they act.

EEG equipment sounds high-tech, but it's relatively cheap and easy to access. Thanks to its availability, UIC psychiatrists think their anxiety test could easily be used in doctors’ offices to measure ERN before determining a course of treatment.

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Food
A Pitless Avocado Wants to Keep You Safe From the Dreaded 'Avocado Hand'
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The humble avocado is a deceptively dangerous fruit. Some emergency room doctors have recently reported an uptick in a certain kind of injury—“avocado hand,” a knife injury caused by clumsily trying to get the pit out of an avocado with a knife. There are ways to safely pit an avocado (including the ones likely taught in your local knife skills class, or simply using a spoon), but there’s also another option. You could just buy one that doesn’t have a pit at all, as The Telegraph reports.

British retailer Marks & Spencer has started selling cocktail avocados, a skinny, almost zucchini-like type of avocado that doesn’t have a seed inside. Grown in Spain, they’re hard to find in stores (Marks & Spencer seems to be the only place in the UK to have them), and are only available during the month of December.

The avocados aren’t genetically modified, according to The Independent. They grow naturally from an unpollinated avocado blossom, and their growth is stunted by the lack of seed. Though you may not be able to find them in your local grocery, these “avocaditos” can grow wherever regular-sized Fuerte avocados grow, including Mexico and California, and some specialty producers already sell them in the U.S. Despite the elongated shape, they taste pretty much like any other avocado. But you don’t really need a knife to eat them, since the skin is edible, too.

If you insist on taking your life in your hand and pitting your own full-sized avocado, click here to let us guide you through the process. No one wants to go to the ER over a salad topping, no matter how delicious. Safety first!

[h/t The Telegraph]

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