Insights: News

The latest news on pills for phobias, pain and the economy's effect on obesity.

By Sarah Henrich, Lauren F. Friedman, Nancy Ryerson, published on May 3, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Fear Fighter

Therapist's little helper?

image of a serious smily face

Imagine a pill that dramatically speeds the recovery time of patients suffering from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and phobias. Sounds magical, but it might not be far off: Emory University researchers have developed a drug that could accelerate relief from emotional trauma.

The drug contains a compound that mimics brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a naturally occurring protein that speeds learning, memory, and fear processes. After a traumatizing experience, rats injected with the compound quickly returned to normal with extinction training, unlike untreated rats, who took much longer to heal, an American Journal of Psychiatry study finds.

For humans, this could translate to quicker results from therapy for fear-related conditions. Instead of just alleviating symptoms, this treatment—which may be available in a decade—would spark the same brain activities that occur naturally in trauma recovery.

Timing would be key to a therapy enhancer developed from the compound, researcher Kerry Ressler says. The drug would intensify sufferers' emotional memory at the time of psychotherapy; taking it right before a session would ensure that the therapist could help the patient process and alleviate her fears. —Sarah Henrich

Economy Size

Is the laissez-faire market making us fat?

Image of Jabba the Hut

Two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, yet there's not much agreement on the underlying cause. Previous studies have singled out sedentary lifestyles and easy access to unhealthy food, but Avner Offer, an economist at Oxford, suggests a less obvious culprit: the free market.

In a recent study in Economics and Human Biology, Offer's team posits that liberal free market economies, like those in the United States and the U.K., foster an environment of uncertainty. This uncertainty, they suggest, increases stress, which leads to overeating and weight gain on an individual level.

Offer gathered BMI data from 1994 to 2004 and tested obesity in 11 countries against putative causes, such as inequality, the availability of fast food, and economic insecurity. Insecurity (measured as the combined risk of unemployment, illness, and certain kinds of poverty) emerged as the strongest plumpness predictor.

Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University, says the study's hypothesis fits with what we know about human survival. "The instinct that evolved to respond to food scarcity responds to other types of insecurity as well," she says.

But the study didn't demonstrate a causal link, just a strong association. In fact, says Cornell economist David Just, considering how much changed in the decade they examined, a range of false-positive associations could easily show up between unrelated factors. "This study might start the conversation we ought to have," he says, "but it certainly doesn't finish it." —Lauren F. Friedman

The Hurt Blocker

Promising developments in pain treatment

Image of an On/Off switch

Groundbreaking research may transform the fight against discomfort. Scientists at SUNY Stony Brook have found a way to "snip" a specific wire that carries pain signals to the brain. They discovered a molecule that cuts off a sodium ion channel, intercepting electrical signals before they reach the brain. Most painkillers, in contrast, affect neurons, reducing the brain's perceptions of hurt but causing side effects such as impaired judgment and possible dependence. The new painkiller might be available in two years.

Meanwhile, a new compound, developed by scientists at the University of Toronto, could combat chronic pain—the kind experienced by AIDS and cancer patients, and those with nerve damage.

Chronic pain can result from neuroplasticity, or changes in the brain, that generates abnormal activity in pain-related regions, so that discomfort registers even in the absence of a specific ailment. Researchers IDed a natural enzyme that helps form those pain-inducing brain changes and, even better, discovered a way to block it. A new drug (which could be market-ready in about five years) would alleviate chronic pain without numbing the normal responses that alert us to everyday injury. —Nancy Ryerson