UC Science Today is produced by the University of California and covers the latest and greatest research throughout the system. From breakthroughs in medicine, agriculture and the environment to insights into the world around us, Science Today covers it all.
What we can learn from the "dinosaurs of marriage"
In 1989, UC Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson began to study a group of people who had been married at least 15 years or 35 years, depending on age, to get a better sense of what fairly successful marriages are like. This was not purely a behavioral study, as they also managed to collect genetic samples from many of these 156 couples. In this interview excerpt, Levenson explains the implications for future couples.
"Well, one of the things that motivated us to do this study is that we felt this might be the last opportunity to study the dinosaurs of marriage. The people who had 50 years with a particular person. And at the time we started in the 80s it looked like the divorce rate was reaching 65 percent in this country. Seven out of 10 marriages ending in divorce. And so here was a group that grew up in a different era and had you know sort of stayed together and we wanted to understand them just in case they disappeared from the earth.
Well, I think things are different now and you know we’re in this period of flux in marriage. A lot of people don’t marry. The divorce rate has gone back down again to 50 percent. I don’t know whether the modal marriage for the millennial generation will be, you know, marry once, marry twice, marry three times. But I think the basic biology here, the relationship between behavior and biology doesn’t require you to be married.
You know this is a statement about what counts in terms of your being happy in a relationship. And although our tools may not be strong enough to detect these in the first and second and third years, I still expect that these genetic influences are having the same effects on relationships today as they did, you know, 20 and 40 years ago in those marriages."
"Right and as you say with the dinosaurs, I mean I think that’s the joke, you know, people will say about their grandparents - they stuck together even though they didn’t seem very happy and yet they did."
"Now that might happen again. You know we go through these pendular kinds of sociological changes and for a while it seemed like we were in sort of a casual relationship. People lived together, they didn’t marry, but who knows what it’s going to be like in the future. And who knows probably the best bet is the pendulum will swing back and maybe people will form better marriages and will find ways of making better mate selection. And maybe even genes will play a role in that.
And you know you’ll go and you’ll talk to your grandma and your grandpa and they’ll give you advice and then you’ll go to your geneticist and she’ll give you advice and you’ll put that all together in this kind of unique algorithm that will say okay I’m going to go this way. And then if you’re smart you’ll listen. And if you’re not you’ll say ah, I know best. I’m just going to marry whoever I want to. But I don’t think human nature is going to get re-writ in any particular, you know, in any short period of time."
Want to hear the entire interview?
Or, listen to several experts, including Levenson, describe our brain in love in this discussion:
Why nutrition studies can't be one-size-fits-all
If you’ve been around awhile, chances are you’ve experienced foods that were once touted to be good for you, suddenly becoming the worst thing you could possibly eat. Or at least that’s how it feels when there’s a lot of media coverage about the latest scientific studies. Take eggs, for example. Over the years, these nutrient-rich orbs have gone from what’s for breakfast, to heart-attacks waiting to happen … only to be redeemed again as a healthy choice. Of course, moderation is key – for anything, but what gives when it comes to such nutritional see-saws? We asked nutrition researcher Angela Zivkovic of the University of California, Davis.
"Part of the problem is that we just have natural variability between people, and if we keep trying to find the answer about how a certain diet affects all humans, we're probably never going to find the answer, and we're going to keep having these sort of pendulum swings back and forth. Eggs are good for you, eggs are not good for you, eggs are good for you, eggs are not good for you because every time you get a different population, you'll get a different answer. Really, it's that eggs are good for some people at certain points in time, and eggs are not so good for other people especially at certain points in time. So, you know, we just need to try to figure out, how do we understand how different people respond to different diets at different points? And, again, it's not even just about, how do you respond to eggs? It's today versus three years from now versus 10 years ago. It's very different. People change over time and people are very unique and individual. And it's the overall context, too. That's often something that's really forgotten and missed. It's like, you know, we try to isolate these foods as if we eat them in isolation of other things. Of course, we eat them as complete diets. So let's say I'm on a vegan diet except I eat eggs. The effect of those eggs might be very different than if I eat eggs, but I'm actually on a Paleo-type diet, where I'm also eating a lot of other animal products. So it's really all about context and trying to understand how different people vary and change and respond to these different dietary treatments."
There are benefits to letting your mind wander
It's a workday, just after lunch. You have a deadline and there's plenty of time left in the day to get the task done. If only you could stop thinking about other things. One thought can lead to your mind just...wandering away. This can't be good, right? You've probably been scolded as a kid for daydreaming in class. But in recent years, neuroscientists and psychologists have found that there are some very redeeming qualities to this mental state - in fact, it could be an essential cognitive skill. Here's an excerpt from an interview conducted with one of those researchers.
Are we close to curing glaucoma?
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, might be close to finding a drug that could cure glaucoma, which is the world’s second-leading cause of blindness. Karsten Gronert, a professor of optometry, says it has been a long process of trial and error.
"With decades worth of research there have been several approaches to try to develop neuroprotective drugs that somehow can stop once you see neurodegenerartion. And there have been several approaches and none of them actually were able to stop the progression of neurodegeneration."
But Gronert discovered that astrocytes - cells in the eye retina - produce lipid signals that protect nerves from damage. And when the eye is stressed, the astrocytes stop making the protective signal.
"It was an unexpected finding. This means it has some unknown role with nerves that we were not aware of."
So, if researchers can find a way to protect astrocytes, they might get on the right track to fight glaucoma.
Cataloging the brain to make sense of functionality and cure disease
How does one make a brain atlas? John Ngai, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley explains.
“You can think of it as a taxonomy. You might think about what are all the species of birds that there are on Earth, you might think of it as needing to first identify those types.”
So, just like with a bird encyclopedia, UC Berkeley neurologists are trying to find and organize brain cells into a catalogue of sorts.
“We know there are many different types of neurons in the brain. They look different. We might have some ideas about how they function differently. But we have no rational way of categorizing them. But using new molecular and genetic techniques, we have a very powerful way of classifying them.”
The brain atlas is an ambitious multimillion-dollar project that will help researchers better understand how brain cells wire up and function. And that could be the key to cure of neurological diseases, including autism and Alzheimer’s. For Science Today, I’m Larissa Branin.
An over-the-counter drug that may help in the fight against MS
Multiple Sclerosis, or MS, affects over two million people worldwide. The neurodegenerative disease strikes when the immune system attacks myelin, layers of a fatty insulating membrane that surround nerve fibers and help send nerve signals faster. Ari Green, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco, has found an over the counter allergy drug called Clemastine that could possibly help repair damaged myelin.
“It was originally designed back in the 1970s as an antihistamine and we were excited that it showed the evidence that myelin repair is possible even with injury that is not immediate or acute, but has been there for some time."
Green says because of possible side effects of the medication, Clemastine is only a prototype for a better myelin repairing drug that researchers have yet to develop.
"What we want is a drug that has a very targeted effect that would be capable of inducing this repair without causing other side effects."