Bring back that loving feeling

From Cosmos Magazine, Issue 77, Summer 2018 (Image by Max Sparber via Flickr)

Psychedelic drugs have long been outlawed. Now psychiatrists want them back.

ON A SWELTERING NEW YORK EVENING in August 2016, Jesse Noakes finally found relief from years of mind-numbing depression. As he sat on the sofa facing the therapist his gloom melted away, replaced by feelings of clarity, warmth and enthusiasm. “It was magical,” he says, “something that I was so, so desperate for.”

The Australian writer had spent his 20s cycling from one antidepressant to the next without relief. The therapy session that finally sliced through his mental miasma came at the end of a months-long global quest that took him to the Netherlands, Switzerland, and finally the US. It also took him to the wrong side of the law. That’s because his therapy session was boosted by a dose of MDMA, the active ingredient in the illegal party drug ecstasy.

Clandestine therapy sessions like these may soon be a thing of the past. Read more… Bring back that loving feeling, or purchase Issue 77 here

How acid warps your thoughts and feelings

From Cosmos Magazine, January 27, 2017 (Image: Mesaj via Flickr)

Eight decades since Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann first cooked up the psychedelic drug lysergic acid diethylamide – LSD or “acid” – and half a century on from its heyday during the 1960s counterculture, how LSD messes with our brain is still little understood.

But two new studies published today help to reveal those brain regions affected and neurochemical receptors responsible for LSD’s mind-altering effects. Read more… 

How microbes affect you from brain to bowel

From Cosmos Magazine, September 5-9, 2016. (Photo: Lactobacillus casei by AJC1 via Flickr)

Not a day goes by without some new study proclaiming the importance of our microbes to our health. It’s hard to keep up, and hard to sort the wheat from the chaff, the mildly interesting association from the water-tight causal link. I recently wrote a five part series that looks at the current state of microbiota research – what evidence is solid, and what needs further investigation.

Microbes and you: a partnership millions of years old

We are not alone. Our bodies are teeming metropolises of microscopic life – and the microbes that call us home influence everything from bowel to brain.

Over the past decade, technological advances in the lab have allowed us to take a census of our microbial entourage – known as the microbiota – like never before. Instead of seeing only the small fraction of microbes from our skin or poo that blossom on a petri dish, we can now blend, extract and read the genetic essence – the DNA – of all microbes, called the microbiome, to get a better idea of who’s there.

The picture that has emerged is one of staggering complexity. Read more…

How bugs in your gut can make you fat (or thin)

Tinkering with gut microbes causes more than a tummy ache. They can wring more calories from food and boost fat cell production – all from day one.

By far the majority of our companion microbes, weighing an impressive 1.5 kilograms and containing more than 1,000 species, reside in our gut, mostly in the large intestine.

As soon as a baby is born – and perhaps even before – microbes move in. Many are seeded from bacteria in the mother’s birth canal if it’s a vaginal birth or from her skin if it’s a caesarean birth. Read more…

Microbe tenants help – and hinder – your immune system

Obesity isn’t the only condition linked to imbalanced gut microflora. A host of autoimmune and inflammatory conditions – inflammatory bowel disease, coeliac disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus – are also associated with changes to gut microbial ecosystems.

(Indeed, obesity is often described as an inflammatory condition for the widespread immune reaction that accompanies excess weight.)

Connecting the dots between altered gut microbes and disease is a lively area of research. Scientists are working on the ‘chicken or egg’ problem: does disrupting the gut microflora cause the disease, or does having the disease lead to changes in gut microflora?

In many cases, it is likely that a complex interplay between genetics and environmental triggers – including the microbes in our guts – is involved. Read more…

Mood, mind and memory – can gut bacteria meddle with the brain?

The microbes in your gut may be tiny, but their influence appears to extend as far as the brain, affecting mental health, stress levels, memory and cognitive abilities. Yet many of the most compelling results illustrating the microbiota-gut-brain axis, as it has become known, have only been seen in animals.

The potential for gut microbes to affect mood is probably best illustrated by an experiment conducted at McMaster University in Canada. Mice devoid of a microbiota were effectively given ‘personality make-overs’ via poo transplants. Timid mice became more brazen, and once daring mice retreated into shyness, taking on the anxiety profiles of their donors.

Human-to-rodent poo transplants also work. Read more…

Bugs as drugs – medicine’s next frontier

Microbiome research is providing tantalising clues about how we might change our microbiota to improve our health. But translating findings from the lab into clinical treatments is a slow and arduous process.

The most dramatic illustration of how our microbiota can be used in the clinic is the case of the poo transplant, also known as faecal microbiota transplantation. Read more…


Is brain training a sham?

From Cosmos Magazine, June 21, 2016. (Image: Salva via Flickr)

An app that improves fluid intelligence – the kind of smarts that help you solve unfamiliar problems – is the holy grail of the billion-dollar brain training industry. Not only would such an app give you an intellectual edge, but it could stave off the mental decline caused by ageing.

Or so the thinking goes.

But the positive effects seen in some brain training studies could be little more than a placebo effect induced by sloppy recruitment practices, according to a new study. Read more…

Mo’ smart with Mozart?

Does Mozart's music make you smarter? (Photo credit: Laura Longenecker via Flickr)
Does Mozart’s music make you smarter? (Photo credit: Laura Longenecker via Flickr)

It’s a tantalising idea: bung on a pair of headphones and revel in the jaunty sounds of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and – ‘hey, presto!’ – your IQ goes up a notch or two. What student faced with exams wouldn’t rush out to purchase Wolfgang’s complete works? What aspirational parent wouldn’t send their little one to sleep to the relaxing – and potentially genius-inducing – notes of Mozart’s clarinet concerto?

The popular notion that Mozart’s music can somehow impart brilliance on a casual listener has been with us since the early 90s. The original idea Continue reading “Mo’ smart with Mozart?”

What is good mental health?

(Photo credit: Viewminder via Flickr)
(Photo credit: Viewminder via Flickr)

When it comes to mental health, conditions like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often come to mind. But does this mean that being without mental illness is the same as being mentally healthy? In an article for ABC Health & Wellbeing, I took a look at what it means to be mentally well, and what you can do to improve your mental wellbeing. Check it out here.



Why do we daydream?

(Image credit: Peter Nijenhuis via Flickr)
(Image credit: Peter Nijenhuis via Flickr)

Bad news for all those productivity nuts out there — up to half our waking lives is spent daydreaming. Why would we squander so much valuable time allowing our mind to wander off task?

It turns out that daydreaming isn’t all a waste of time. It can play an important role in helping us to achieve our goals, preparing for social situations, and gestating creative ideas. But mind wandering has its darker side, too — fantasies aren’t always benevolent, for example.

I recently wrote a piece on the science of daydreaming — why our mind wanders, and how this can have both positive and negative consequences. Check it out here.