Category Archives: Biology

Do you have an “Appetite for Life?”

The University of North Carolina Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) hosts regular events as a part of a program they call “Appetite for Life.” It’s an initiative to “unlock the promise of personalized nutrition for proactive health management.” In other words, their mission is to show people how to eat for their health, specific to individual genetics and environmental experiences.

zeisel-afl

The speaker at the event on September 13 is Steven Zeisel, MD, PhD, and Director of the NRI. Zeisel is world-renowned, a pioneer in the field of personalized nutrition. A nutrient you’ve probably heard of, called choline, is essential for human health, especially concerning pregnant women, and Zeisel is the scientist credited with this discovery.

“I’m not going to tell you what to eat today,” Zeisel says as he begins his talk. Tonight’s event is called “Genetics and Health: Your nutrition needs are as unique as you are,” and the venue, local eatery Restaurant 46, is packed with members of the local community and employees from the neighboring North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC), a 350-acre research center located in Kannapolis, North Carolina.

Zeisel goes on to describe the true meaning of personalized, or precision, medicine and the past, current, and future studies the NRI has in place to make personalized medicine a reality for everyday people concerned with their health.

“Diet can be changed to bypass nutrient deficiencies depicted by the genetic code,” Zeisel goes on. He starts by breaking down the specifics of nutrition science, starting with genetics. He describes single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), common genetic variation that occurs uniquely in all humans, as “spelling errors” in the DNA. Considering that a majority of the audience have a limited understanding of current genetics, Zeisel presents his description of SNPs in an accurate yet simplified manner. After all, what’s the point of talking about bringing personalized medicine to the public if the lay people can’t understand what you’re talking about?

img_0500

Zeisel and his colleagues at the NRI are preparing for the future of genetic testing, a technology they predict as being able to sequence an individual’s genetic code to provide a complete record of specific “spelling errors” in the DNA that might make the individual at risk for certain nutrient deficiencies. Being aware of nutrient deficiencies would then allow the individual to change their diet to eat more or less of a certain type of food.

There are companies that exist now, like 23andMe, that can provide genetic information from a DNA sample. However, the product a 23andMe customer gets in return for their money and a cheek swab is just pages and pages of combinations of “AGTC” that’s essentially meaningless unless the customer also happens to be an expert in nutrigenetics with a lot of free time.

Zeisel goes on to talk about choline, folate, and other studies from the NRI and other institutions concerned about health and nutrition. He leaves plenty of time for community members to ask their own questions, many about their health and the health of their loved ones.

The NRI’s story is far from over, but after a while questions subside. For now, people head home with a new perspective on individualized nutrition. The next Appetite for Life event is now something to look forward to, a talk by NRI scientist Stephen Hursting on October 18.

img_0496

Images from UNC NRI and Kara Marker

#ScienceKara is Back

After a 2-month hiatus, I have returned to my beloved science blog devoted to debunking scientific myths in public discourse.

Although I regret that I had to take a hiatus, I am glad that I used the time to get settled in a new location: Charlotte, North Carolina! After an acceptance into a graduate program for Technical and Professional Writing at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, I quickly relocated to the area and looked for a job.

Full-time writing jobs for biology majors are not so common in this area, though (maybe if I was into business or banking it’d be a different story). I did manage to put together a series of gigs to pay the bills and give me some great insight into the potential of my impending career.

First, in June I started writing for LabRoots.com, the leading scientific social networking website and producer of educational virutal events and webinars. I love what I do for this company and truly appreciate their mission of connecting both scientific and non-scientific communities.

Next, in August I started working for SkinnyMs.com, a delightful health and fitness website providing “busy women with easy access to healthy living tools including clean eating recipes, menu planning and effective workouts and fitness programs.” I do social media management and article writing for Skinny Ms., and I love every second of it. I get to learn so much every day.

For a few weeks, I’ll be an after-school program instructor for Mad Science, a national franchise that brings science education to millions of children each year. I get to perform fun scientific experiments 2 afternoons a week to elementary aged children.

Lastly, I am a marketing intern for the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, NC (just a half hour north of Charlotte). This campus, created by David H. Murdock (owner of Dole Foods), miraculously combines public and private institutions based on one mutual goal: enhancing human health, nutrition and agriculture through innovate research and development. As marketing intern, I’ll be writing articles and doing whatever I can to help get the word out to the scientific community and to the public about the aims of this campus.

My passion for telling the truth about science and nutrition only grows stronger each day as I work in these 4 different roles – communicating, writing, and thinking. With your help, we can build a more educated public. Let’s get started. Next post in 30 minutes.

#GoScience  #ScienceKara

FDA Alert On Cilantro From Puebla, Mexico

The recent report of a cyclosporiasis outbreak from cilantro plants is not the first to be issued. Outbreaks also occurred in 2012, 2013, and 2014, all pointing to cilantro from the Mexican state of Puebla.

Cyclospora cayetanensis is a protozoan pathogen that specifically infects humans (cyclosporiasis). Protozoan infections are generally more difficult to treat than bacterial or viral infections since protozoa are eukaryotes, just like us. Fewer anti-protozoa treatments exist since there are more similarities between humans and protozoa (and thus less unique targets for drugs) than there are between humans and bacteria (bacteria are prokaryotes – because there are so many differences between human cells and bacteria cells we have a lot of targets for antibacterials).

Cyclosporiasis infections cause diarrhea (like other food-poisoning-related illnesses). In addition to being infected directly from eating contaminated cilantro, people can also become ill through contamination from feces of someone already infected.

Since 2013, the FDA has investigated “11 farms and packing houses that produce cilantro in the state of Puebla” and found 8 farms to either be carrying C. cayetanensis or to be exhibiting dangerous conditions capable of harboring the parasite. The FDA report said these suspect farms contained “human feces and toilet paper found in growing fields and around facilities.”

Because of these findings, the FDA concluded that cilantro products from Puebla are “subject to refusal of admission,” meaning companies receiving cilantro from Puebla can refuse shipments without examination. It is important to note that this FDA report does not include “multi-ingredient processed foods” containing cilantro (only fresh cilantro, intact or cut/chopped).

For the next couple of months if you are buying fresh cilantro, make sure to check the origin of its cultivation. Until the FDA lifts the alert on cilantro from Puebla, it’s not safe to eat. However if you do develop food-poisoning symptoms after eating cilantro, you will be okay. Refuel your body with electrolytes and water – and maintain strict hygiene! You want to flush the parasite out of your system without infecting anyone else.

 

#ScienceKara #GoGuacamole

For more on this issue, check out the following resources:

LabRoots Coverage

Direct access to FDA report

The Truth About Antioxidants

Continuing with my series devoted to uncovering the truth in health trends, today I am going to discuss a common feature of food advertisements. Antioxidants are compounds that delay some types of cell damage, which is why they are portrayed as healthy in certain food ads. Foods with antioxidants are also marketed to prevent disease, like in this Fitness Magazine article about healthy eating:

http://http://www.fitnessmagazine.com/recipes/healthy-eating/tips/top-antioxidant-healthy-foods/

Although this sounds good when making a smoothie purchase, knowing the facts about antioxidants is imperative to truly understanding what benefits you are reaping when potentially paying extra for food containing antioxidants. Does a diet high in antioxidants truly prevent disease? Read more to find out.

Look familiar?
Look familiar?

Don’t worry. Everything you thought you knew about antioxidants is not a lie. Vegetables and fruits are major sources of these substances. Research done at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has shown that people maintaining a regular diet high in antioxidants are generally the healthiest population. However, the same research cannot conclude that it is the action of the antioxidants that is preventing disease in the lives of these people. Other factors under consideration are “other components of these foods, other factors in people’s diets, or other lifestyle choices.”

In addition, similar studies showed that antioxidants did not help in the prevention of chronic disease like cancer and heart problems. In fact, high doses of supplements like beta-carotene were actually shown to increase lung cancer risk in smokers, and high doses of vitamin E supplements increased risk of prostate cancer. That being said, it seems the antioxidant consumption follows the theme of “healthy in moderation.” In addition, consuming your daily dose of antioxidants will always be better through eating an apple or some broccoli, as opposed to an artificial supplement.

My next question to explore is this: How exactly do antioxidants prevent cell damage?

An "Antioxidant Recipe" (image source: Viosan Health)
An “Antioxidant Recipe” (image source: Viosan Health)

When you metabolize food into energy your body can use or when you exercise, unstable molecules called “free radicals” are formed. Free radicals are also present in the environment from sunlight and from air pollution. Free radicals are dangerous because they trigger oxidative stress, which can then cause cell damage. The danger surrounding oxidative stress revolves around a chemical imbalance in the body and a failure to detoxify the effects of free radicals (News Medical). Still confused? Check out this creatively organized video by Active Beat that explains the connection between free radicals, oxidative stress, and the action of antioxidants:

Essentially, antioxidants help counter the harmful effect of oxidative stress due to high free radical levels in the body (hence the name anti-oxidant). Without the counteractive impact of antioxidants, oxidative stress is shown to increase risk of chronic diseases (cancer, heart problems) and age-related diseases (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Macular Degeneration).

Not sure what macular degeneration is? Check out this article here:

http://labroots.com/trending/id/1410/inhibiting-mast-cell-degranulation-a-new-therapy-for-macular-degeneration/health-and-medicine

Take-away messages from this blog post:

  1. Antioxidants are not bad. Just get as many from fruit as you can, and don’t overdo it with your vitamin supplements.
  2. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” may or may not be true – scientists aren’t actually sure if it’s specifically antioxidants in “healthy” foods that prevent disease. It could very well be that people who keep high amounts of fruits and vegetables in their diet are much more likely to also exercise regularly, drink less alcohol, and participate in other destructive habits like smoking.
  3. When you’re at the grocery store and are convinced to purchase something because of a label promising healthy antioxidants (or any other current health trend for that matter), know what you are spending your money on. Shop smart, know your food!
Fruit and vegetable juices are popular choices for antioxidant intake. These particular bottles of V8 also advertise no high fructose corn syrup. See my previous blog to find out why HFCS isn't so bad.
Fruit and vegetable juices are popular choices for antioxidant intake. These particular bottles of V8 also advertise no high fructose corn syrup. See my previous blog to find out why HFCS actually isn’t so bad.

For a complete analysis of antioxidants, check out this NIH page where I got most of my information for this post:

https://nccih.nih.gov/health/antioxidants/introduction.htm

#ScienceKara

The Truth About High Fructose Corn Syrup

In 2010, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) began producing TV commercials defending and promoting the usage of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as a sweetener. What is it about HFCS that gave it a bad reputation in the first place? My guess is that it’s the “syrup” part. That word doesn’t exactly scream “healthy.” Regardless, I’ve done the research and made my conclusion about HFCS – read more for the answer! For now, check out of the CRA’s promotional advertisements:

First, let’s think about what HFCS is. What makes it different from table sugar?

In the 1970s, there were increased taxes on sugar but subsidies on corn, “making it a much cheaper sweetener than table sugar” (American Chemical Society). Using advanced chemical processes, sweetener manufactures began to break down corn into corn starch, then into corn syrup, and then into glucose, a monosaccharide (basic building block of carbohydrates). However, fructose (also a monosaccharide) is naturally sweeter than glucose, so they broke the glucose down even further. Think about it like this:

Corn diagram

Table sugar is sucrose, a polysaccharides (poly = many, polysaccharides = many monosaccharides). The connection: there’s no nutritional difference between using sucrose as a sweetener verses using fructose! My information comes from a video produced by the American Chemical Society on March 31, 2015 and seen on BusinessInsider.com just last week. Check it out here:

Does it seem like I’ve made it pretty clear that HFCS is no worse than sugar to sweeten your favorite foods? I hope so, because that was my goal. However, the topic has historically been controversial in the medical community. On his blog in 2014, Dr. Mark Hyman strongly criticizes HFCS as a sweetener option and condemns the CRA for funding a commercial campaign to promote the safety of HFCS as a viable sweetener. Hyman’s main points denouncing HFCS are two questionable claims:

  • HFCS consumption causes obesity, diabetes, and other problems
  • HFCS contains mercury

First of all, Hyman should not be so quick to shun HFCS for causing obesity. Table sugar (sucrose) does the exact same thing when overconsumed. The key is that both HFCS and sugar are acceptable sweeteners when used in moderation. HFCS is included by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the list of “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS) food. The FDA also states that they “are not aware of any evidence… that there is a difference in safety between foods containing [high fructose corn syrup] and foods containing similar amounts of other nutritive sweeteners with approximately equal glucose and fructose content, such as sucrose, honey, or other traditional sweeteners.”

The FDA is undoubtedly reliable, but if you would like to hear more about the claim that HFCS contains mercury, Dr. Jim Laidler explains in further detail in this short video:

http://sweetsurprise.com/hfcs-faqs#108

In addition, the video produced by the ACS and posted by Business Insider cites multiple reliable scientific journals, including a study published in Advances in Nutrition just two years ago.

The average American consumes 23 tablespoons of sugar a day, when you should consume less than 10 (According to the video)! Whether you are eating food sweetened by table sugar (sucrose) or high fructose corn syrup, the dangers of overconsumption are the same. Eat your sweets in moderation!

Sources: American Chemical Society, Corn Refiners Association, United States Food and Drug Administration, Business Insider

Gluten: The Protein, The Trend, The Choice

In the five years since her rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, Bailey Brislin can attest to the increase of gluten’s appearance in public discourse and on social media. A poll I conducted asking 34 random participants various questions about gluten revealed a lot about public opinion and knowledge surrounding the gluten-free trend. Collectively, it seems like these are the two opposing misconceptions about gluten:

  1. Gluten is an unhealthy component of food and should be avoided by everyone
  2. The gluten-free diet is entirely a conspiracy; no one should have to avoid gluten

Although a strong majority of the participants did not actually follow a gluten-free diet themselves, 90% knew at least one other person who did. Two-thirds of these people known to be gluten-free either had celiac disease or another gluten intolerance. Other participants listed their gluten-free friends as simply following the fad or trying “to be healthy.”

“I think people who are gluten free by choice with no medical need for it just don’t understand the science of gluten very well.” Becky Turner, a senior biology major at UNC-Chapel Hill, has often pondered with me the cause behind the growing popularity of the gluten-free diet. “Your diet is your choice, but uninformed choices are causing those who don’t have a choice to suffer from the subsequent bad reputation of being gluten-free.”

Although true gluten-free individuals like Brislin may receive criticism from a few skeptics, at least the growing trend in the gluten-free diet is increasing the number of gluten-free products on grocery shelves. In 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defined “gluten-free” as products containing less than 20 parts per million of gluten (FDA, allergens). However, since this labeling is voluntary, there has been an increase of marketing products as “gluten-free” even though their contents have always been naturally absent of gluten (example: hummus).

Rebecca Houser, a weight-loss consultant with a degree in nutrition science from North Carolina State University, predicts the future of the gluten-free trend: “Unless you have an actual sensitivity to gluten, the hype will die down and we will move on to the next fad diet.”

So, after all of this clarification on what gluten is and who is truly impacted by it, how do we ascertain how the craze began? Ultimately, the beginning of the focus on gluten when talking about nutrition cannot be pinpointed to one study or one patient. However, it is possible and reasonable to think that technology and research have enhanced in the past decade to the point where disorders like celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis are better understood. I hypothesize that it is this increased understanding that has led to a new light being shined upon gluten as a harmful product. When scientists were able to pinpoint gluten as a cause of illness, people with celiac disease and other gluten intolerance disorders begin to eat gluten-free as instructed by their doctors. Friends and family who heard about their lifestyle change may not have connected the aversion to gluten to become healthier with a unique medical condition. Hence, the association of “gluten” with “unhealthy.”

This, my friends, is an example of a classic health misconception. The bigger picture lesson here: ask why. If someone (not a doctor) tells you gluten is bad, do not take their word for it. Do the research yourself – be informed! And if eliminating gluten from your diet makes you feel better, that’s great! Shrug off any criticism. You know how you feel better than anyone else.

Autoimmune Disorders and Gluten Intolerance

Some medical conditions require a patient to eliminate gluten from their diet.

Celiac disease, which affects about 1% of the population of the United States (Mayo Clinic), is an autoimmune disorder based on an intolerance of gluten proteins. Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system attacks particles that are normally not harmful to the body, either ingested food proteins or the body’s own cells.

Celiac disease occurs when the immune system attacks the body’s own cells after gluten is ingested. Specifically, the cells of the small intestine are targeted. Celiac disease-related attacks on the small intestine damage the cells that absorb nutrients during digestion (Celiac Disease Foundation).

Celiac disease is hereditary, meaning it runs in families. The pattern of inheritance is unknown (NIH). However, 95% of people with celiac disease have the same gene specific for celiac disease predisposition (Medscape, Genetics of Celiac Disease).

Rheumatoid arthritis is another autoimmune disorder relating to gluten intolerance. However, gluten is only one of many potential signals that can lead to an autoimmune attack. Rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation of the joints – resulting in swelling, pain, and decreased movement ability (Arthritis Foundation).

Bailey Brislin, a UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore biology major preparing for medical school, was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis during her first year in high school. “My ankle had been swollen for months. We went to multiple doctors that couldn’t tell me what was wrong,” Brislin recalls of the time before her diagnosis. Finally, an ankle specialist ordered an MRI and referred Brislin to a rheumatologist after blood test results indicated Rheumatoid factor (RF) in her system. RF is an antibody characteristic of rheumatoid arthritis patients as well as people with other autoimmune disorders (Medscape, Rheumatoid Factor).

The next step to calculating Brislin’s proper treatment was a 5-week series of food sensitivity testing. Although the cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not fully known, potential factors triggering joint inflammation are food proteins, pathogens, female hormones, obesity, stress, and other environmental factors (Arthritis Foundation).

The results of Brislin’s sensitivity tests showed intolerance of gluten and dairy: typical occurrences among rheumatoid arthritis patients. After a while, Brislin realized that eliminating gluten from her diet had a much stronger impact on reducing  her joint inflammation than eliminating dairy.

“After a month off of gluten, I felt better. I was able to stop taking pain medication just by eliminating gluten alone,” Brislin says, “but I should be dairy-free too.” Many years later, Brislin still regularly takes immunosuppressant drugs to improve her condition.

After many years of maintaining a gluten-free diet to ensure her joint inflammation does not return, Brislin has also gathered an opinion on the growing trend of a gluten-free diet. Brislin compares people going gluten-free for no necessary reason to people trying a vegetarian diet just to see if they can do it. “There are people glorifying the gluten-free diet. It’s just bread,” Brislin says, in response to people going gluten-free for supposed “just to be healthy” reasons.

“So gluten-free becomes this very popular trend… and I get all of this criticism for being gluten-free. My rheumatologist always talks about how you don’t have to find the specific scientific data you want, just work with what has been proven in your own case,” Brislin says as she describes her encounters with gluten-free skeptics. Brislin experienced the growth of the gluten-free trend from a very unique perspective. She understands the necessity of eliminating gluten from the diet in certain circumstances but is also critical of the diet in other instances.

Her evaluation below perfectly sums up my goal in writing this series on the growing obsession with gluten:

“There are a lot of people who are very healthy who also eat gluten. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with gluten – it’s not an evil food. Not eating a lot of bread is probably a good thing, but stopping eating bread and replacing it with gluten-free bread doesn’t make much sense… I’m not sure what dietary benefits people think that’s providing…”

Stay tuned for my third and last segment of my series on the gluten-free trend. This last post will contain further analysis on the development of the gluten-free trend, data from a poll of opinions about it, and an interview with Raleigh allergist Dr. Vaishali Mankad.

What is gluten?

Contrary to what you may have heard, gluten is not harmful for most people to ingest.

(0:44)

Let me set the record straight. Gluten refers to a specific set of proteins. Proteins are large molecules made up of amino acids that perform a vast range of actions necessary for life in all living organisms. In this case, gluten proteins contribute to vital life functions for the plants of wheat, barley, and rye.

The word “gluten” comes from the Latin word for glue, and rightly so. Gluten proteins are responsible for the qualities in bread such as elasticity, chewiness, and shape1. When baking bread and other products containing these proteins, the mixture thickens and rises because of thousands of gluten proteins sticking together as the temperature increases.

Foods containing gluten:

(Not a comprehensive list)

  • Pasta
  • Bread
  • Crackers
  • Baked goods
  • Cereal and granola
  • Pancakes and waffles
  • Flour tortillas
  • Beer
  • Milkshakes

While reflecting on this list, it may seem that going gluten-free could be a way to reduce fat intake and lose some weight. After all, beer and bread are notorious for contributing to weight gain. Avoiding these foods could help you lose weight, but gluten is not at all the only ingredient contributing to this circumstance. If you choose instead gluten-free substitutes for the food items listed above, you are not improving your chances at weight loss. In fact, you are more likely to gain weight by changing your diet to eating the gluten-free form of these foods.

In a study done last year in Spain, scientists looked at the nutritional differences between gluten-containing products and their gluten-free alternatives.2 Gluten-free bread was found to contain less protein, but two times the amount of fat (a lose-lose situation). Similarly, gluten-free pasta exhibited these changes, and in addition it contained more sodium and less fiber (more bad news). Cereal bars and flour followed this same trend.

Although it has been shown that food altered to be gluten-free is less nutritious than its natural form, fortunately there are plenty of naturally gluten-free options to choose from for people suffering from Celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and other conditions in the realm of gluten intolerance. Fruit, vegetables, rice, corn, and potato are all naturally gluten-free options for healthy eating.1

Now that I have established what gluten is, what food it is found in, and the nature of gluten-free substitutes, hopefully your opinion of gluten has been fine-tuned. In the next part of this series about gluten, I will discuss Celiac disease as well as rheumatoid arthritis – and why people living with these conditions live a gluten-free lifestyle.

References:

  1. Gluten-Free Diet – Celiac Disease Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved June 9, 2015, from http://celiac.org/live-gluten-free/glutenfreediet/
  1. Miranda, J., Lasa, A., Bustamante, M.A., Churruca, I., and Simon, E. March 2014. Nutritional Differences Between a Gluten-free Diet and a Diet Containing Equivalent Products with Gluten. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition. 69(410).

Image source:

berrycart.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/gluten.png

Special thanks to Christine Rardin for the video reference!

What’s the deal with gluten?

In the last decade, the presence of “gluten-free” products has drastically increased on our grocery store shelves, TV commercials, and in our conversations. “She’s gluten free now” is a statement we hear often while catching up with friends. Why is gluten all of a sudden such a problem? What IS gluten? Should everyone eliminate gluten from their diet? All of these questions and more will soon be answered in a 3-part series of blog posts about gluten and the recently popular gluten-free diet trend. I plan to describe gluten and the foods it is naturally found in and also discuss the nature of gluten-free substitutes. Plus, look forward to exclusive interviews with UNC Chapel Hill student, Bailey Brislin, as she explains why she follows a gluten-free diet, and Dr. Vaishali Mankad, a practicing allergist at Allergy Partners of Raleigh.

Understanding the biology surrounding gluten as well as its impact on our health is important. We are constantly in search of the best diet to follow for optimal health, and the media has a huge impact on what we think will help us lose weight or be healthier.

Is eliminating gluten from your diet the right choice for you? Stay tuned to find out! 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes — A Scientific Critique

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” told the story of a researcher who, while looking for the cure to Alzheimer’s, inadvertently created an army of highly intelligent primates (whoops) by developing a virus that allowed brain tissue to heal itself. The scientist, played by James Franco, had personal reasons for developing the cure; his father, living with him at home, was visibly suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Throughout the film, many of the details involving the miracle virus are vaguely expressed, but the film does adequately show a difference in how the chimpanzees and humans are differentially affected by the virus when infected. Thus, this film is a fine representation of the difficulties of applying animal model research in the lab. Moreover, this film uses topical knowledge of the pathogenicity of Alzheimer’s combined with the more widespread knowledge of the visible, debilitating effects of the disease to develop a dramatic science-fiction story with just enough realistic explanation of scientific phenomena to make the story seem plausible in real life.

Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder occurring in nearly 5% of the elderly population worldwide (Bali et. al, 2010). The disease develops over time as neuron cells die, and ultimately presents clinically with memory loss and cognitive impairment (Castellani et. al, 2010). Current studies in Alzheimer’s therapy revolve around prevention: recognizing particularly susceptible groups and taking steps to slow the onset of the disease. Specifically, amyloid-β treatments are utilized since deposits of these peptides are often visible many years before patients show symptoms of Alzheimer’s (Reiman 2013).

James Franco and his scientist buddies, while looking for a cure to Alzheimer’s, infect chimpanzees with an experimental virus to examine how it impacts brain tissue and intelligence. Promising results show infected chimps succeeding at the so-called “Lucas Tower” – an actual laboratory test called the Tower of Hanoi. This test is used in real life in various studies, and it measures cognitive abilities based on skill learning and mastery (Schiff and Vakil, 2015). In the film, improved intelligence (based on a “good” Lucas Tower score) of the chimps is understood to supposedly highlight potential brain-healing qualities of the drug in humans. However, this mechanism is not particularly explained, just assumed. My critique of this particular detail is this: although new brain cells may develop in chimps infected with the drug and subsequently enable them to perform higher level functions, there is no assurance that this same mechanism will revitalize dead neurons in a human brain plagued with Alzheimer’s.

The scientist’s father shows the accurate signs of Alzheimer’s. He has trouble using silverware while eating, remembering piano tunes, and he is unable to drive. Complications occur in the lab, and the scientist eventually finds himself running unofficial, experimental human trials on his father using the virus. The Alzheimer’s-stricken old man receives an injection before bed and is heard flawlessly playing old piano tunes just a couple of hours later after waking up. Although there is no current complete cure to Alzheimer’s in existence to compare this phenomena to, it is still hard to believe that such a monumental improvement would occur within the man’s brain overnight with such visible effects. Alas, the quick change certainly instills a strong feeling of fulfillment and human victory over misfortune amongst the film’s audience.

In addition after the lab complications, the scientist takes home a baby chimpanzee (Caesar) that is found to have received the virus in utero, his mother being one of the chimps showing increased intelligence after infection with the virus. Although some viruses like HIV and herpes are known to cross the placenta during pregnancy or transmitted during birth, the movie did not provide enough detail about the virus to be able to say whether this transmission would be plausible or not. As the scientist’s father responds to the virus with restored cognitive abilities, the chimp responds to its presence in his body by showing abnormal, high-intelligence behaviors for a monkey: quick learning of sign language, humanistic qualities like holding and drinking from cups, and general adaption to a human environment.

Although the chimp continues to get smarter (and cause more problems), after a while the old man regresses back to showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s. The scientist associates this problem to his father’s immune system producing antibodies against the anti-Alzheimer’s virus. It is unclear in the film how long the virus is effective before the body responds by attacking it. It seems like in order for an immune response to be plausible it would have had to occur within a few days of the man receiving the virus. Another discrepancy is this: another scientist in the lab is accidentally exposed to the virus during a chimp experiment and dies. The infection causes some hemorrhagic disorder that was clearly not present in the old man (although he ends up dying as well since the virus stops being able to cure his Alzheimer’s). Lastly, the chimp infected with the virus neither develops the hemorrhagic disorder nor builds up antibodies against the virus. These discrepancies are strangely not addressed and slightly frustrating to someone with a scientific mind.

Despite the vague details of some biological aspects and the mentioned inconsistencies, the foundation of Alzheimer’s as the scientist’s initial motivation for most of the drama that occurs is powerful and relatable. As the generation of senior citizens increases, there a larger high-risk group for Alzheimer’s, and many people my age and older are likely to experience their grandparents or parents suffering from this unfortunate disease.

The next time you watch a science-fiction movie consider the plausibility of the science discussed in the plot. The majority of science-fiction films you will watch won’t have any scientific basis at all, but one of the coolest parts of this film is that a biologist like myself, however visionary, can see a future in brain-healing Alzheimer’s therapy. I am less convinced that vengeful apes will congregate, learn to speak and take over the world, but… I digress.

Check out the Rise of the Planet of the Apes trailer here:

Note: I originally wrote this review for my Molecular Basis of Disease class at UNC.

References

  1. Bali, Jitin; Halima, Saoussen; Felmy, BoasView Profile; Goodger, Zoe; Zurbriggen, SebastianView Profile; et al. Cellular basis of Alzheimer’s disease. Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology, suppl. Suppl 213 (Dec 2010): 89-93.
  2. Castellani, Rudy J.; Rolston, Raj K.; Smith, Mark A. September 2010. Alzheimer’s Disease. Disease-a-Month. 56(9): 484-546.
  3. Reiman, Eric M. January 2014. Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias: advances in 2013. The Lancet Neurology. 13(1): 3-5.
  4. Schiff, Rachel; Vakil, Eli. 2015. Age differences in cognitive skill learning, retention and transfer: The case of the Tower of Hanoi Puzzle. Learning and Individual Differences. Accessed Online.
  5. Picture Link: http://www.dvd-ppt-slideshow.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/rise-of-planet-of-the-apes-4.jpg