Diversions: Answering Your Questions! Part 1 (Scientist in the Lab)

Six month ago I made my first post on the Science of Eating Disorders blog. I want to say a huge big thank you to everyone who reads, “Likes”, shares, comments and subscribes! This has been one of the most (if not the most) rewarding thing I’ve ever done (for real). I’m really happy that I have wonderful contributors who blog about their own interests and share their insight. I’m really happy people comment when they disagree, find something confusing or suggest topics for future posts.

In the last half a year I’ve amassed a large collection of search terms have landed people on the Science of Eating Disorders blog. Most are unremarkable, some are funny, others are worrisome. Once in a while people ask questions. Questions that I want to answer, false beliefs I want to tackle, or simply share with others because they are just too funny (and serve as good starting points for a serious topic).

So, to take a break from doing a typical post, I want to answer some of the search queries that have led people to this blog. I picked a handful of questions to tackle today all relating to the topic of science, hence the subtitle Scientist in the Lab. By the way, I am stealing this idea from The Cellular Scale’s,  Let Me Answer Your Questions (“LMAYQ”) series. Check it out.

Why science has done more harm than good?

Well, it hasn’t. Without scientists our world would look drastically different from the way it looks now. Forget smartphones, computers, cars, and microwaves. Forget about planes, electricity and X-ray machines. Forget about medical breakthroughs, life-saving treatments, and longer life spans. Forget life-saving vaccines, penicillin, insulin, anesthesia,  and even the discovery of blood groups. Science has NOT done more harm than good Science is the best method we have to understand the world around us, our bodies and the Universe, and to discover the truth. Science is not a collection of facts, and it is not an end goal: it is a process.

And by the way, science cannot do more harm than good, but it is how we use the knowledge we gain from scientific inquiry that can do more harm than good. A classic example is the atomic bomb. But do not conflate political decision-making (ie, dropping the bombs) with scientific inquiry (ie, understanding the chemistry and physics behind the processes that lead to the creation of the atomic bomb). This search term probably led to the two part post titled “When Clinicians Do More Harm Than Good“, which explores how negative attitudes by clinicians may harm patients and the second part explores risks of treatment.

What are the consequences of eating in science labs?

That really depends on the type of lab you are talking about (and of course, what kind of boss you have!). For example, there are few consequences of eating in a “dry” lab (ie, think of people sitting in front of computers), because you have limited/no risk of contaminating your samples and experiments, and vice versa, no risk of contaminating your food with laboratory chemicals. But in a wet lab that may have radioactive substances or viruses, you want to be SUPER careful NOT to contaminate your experiments with food or vice versa. Moreover, you don’t want to spill coffee on your microscope or have an ant infestation.

Regardless of the consequences you face from your lab manager or boss-severe or non-existentdo not do it. You don’t want to ruin your (or others’) experiments and you certainly don’t want to put you health at risk.

Have i got a chemical imbalance?

Nope! You don’t! That’s easy, you don’t because there is no such thing. It is a grotesque oversimplification of neurobiology, and in my opinion, a damaging one. A chemical imbalance suggests that there’s something wrong, and that there is such a thing as a chemical balance. BullshitOur brains are not that simple. Contrary to popular perception, neurotransmitters play only a small part in our behaviour and cognitive function.

Besides neurotransmitters (like glutamate, GABA, dopamine and serotonin, among many others) there are neurotransmitter receptors that bind these neurotransmitters, there are complex signalling pathways that can be activated or inhibited based on, for example, which receptor the neurotransmitter binds to. These signalling cascades can impact how easy it is for the neuron to get excited and fire a signal to another neuron, or they can lead to a change in what genes are “turned on” or “turned off”. But even that is a small, tiny, part of the picture. The bottom line is, when we are talking about neurobiology, there is no such thing as a chemical balance, and thus, there’s no such thing as a chemical imbalance. This search term likely led to my entry titled “The Benefits of Starving and Why You Don’t Have a Chemical Imbalance” which explores this topic in more depth.

Does alleles responsible for anorexia nervosa?

This question confused me. Maybe it is suppose to say “are there alleles…” or “what alleles are”? Alleles are variants of a gene. We all have two sets of chromosomes, meaning that we have two copies of the same gene. But, the copies might not be same. A good example is blood types. If you are type AB, then you have one A allele and one B allele. If you are type A, then you might have two A alleles or one A allele and one O allele. But you can also have to different A alleles, if one, for example, has a mutation or a variation in its genetic sequence.

In other words, a gene might be a few hundred “letters” (or nucleotides, such as A,T,G, or C) long. That gene might be responsible for how our bodies metabolize sugar, for example. You have two copies of this gene, one from your mother and one from your father. They may be identical, or they maybe be very different. For example, the allele you have from your mom might start out with these letters “ATGTGCTGCCTGAATCA…” but a different allele, say, allele B, might have a change in the 5th letter, from G to C. This might be innocuous and not cause any change in the protein or sugar metabolism, or it might render the gene useless, or hyper active or very slow, thus changing how quickly you metabolize sugar. This is a purely hypothetical example, but it illustrates (I hope), what alleles are.

So, are there alleles of certain genes that predispose someone to developing anorexia nervosa? Well, it is complicated. We know that genes matter in predisposing individuals to develop an eating disorder. That’s uncontroversial. But, do we know what, specifically, on a genetic level, predisposes someone to AN or BN? No. There is no gene or allele responsible for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. That does not exist. 

You cannot pass on a gene for anorexia or bulimia to your kids, and your parent’s didn’t pass it on to you. What is much more likely to be the case is that a lot of different genes, acting together, may predispose an individual to being more anxious, or more detail-oriented, or perhaps more impulsive. Those features, combined with environmental factors or “triggers” (and by “triggers”, I mean, anything that may lead the individual to realize that restricting their food intake, or bingeing and purging, has some psychologically positive effect on dealing with their mood or emotion), may result in an eating disorder. But, we don’t know the genes involved, what roles they play in the nervous system, how they impact behaviour and predispose individuals to developing eating disorders. It is complicate to study, for many, many reasons, which I will not go into.

But, the main point is: Eating disorders are the result of complex interactions between genetics and the environment. Not solely genes and not solely the environment. This is well-established. But, what the causal genetic and environmental factors are… well, we are just beginning to explore and understand that.

For more details on that, check out posts in the etiology, genetics, and neuroscience categories (there is significant overlap, so some posts will appear in multiple categories).

Anyway, I think that’s it for today! Apologies for the dearth of posts, I’m currently taking a break from Toronto, and spending a weekend in NYC!

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Tetyana is the creator and manager of the blog. She has an Honours BSc in Neuroscience and an MSc in Medical Science. She can be reached at tetyana[at]scienceofeds[dot]org.


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