Friday, March 16, 2012

Pheromones and other love compounds

In sync with the imminent peaking of the cherry blossoms, I am witnessing a lot of overt displays of affection that makes me avert my eyes in embarrassment. Ceiling, meet floor. Floor, meet ceiling.  Romantic is normally not the word I'd use to describe the metro train during early morning hours. But clearly, for this Spring-y month at least, some folks find it 'conducive' enough.  As these couples flaunt their love for the world to see, my wool-gathering ends in.... Pheromones!

Why, oh why, do we act so differently when we first fall in love? The glazed look, the clumsiness, the grin. No doubt, love is a real emotion.  But how does the emotion manifest? Surely there's a neurochemical basis for feelings? What causes that initial spark, that electricity, that... chemistry? You knew I was going there.

I first encountered the word Pheromones when I was preparing a talk on insect neuropeptides in college, and has been fascinated with it ever since. See? You do learn something in college!  Phero/Pherein means "to bear" and -mone, well obviously for hormone. These are excreted factors or vaporized "imprints" that triggers a social response, which can be a signal for alarm, sex, food or aggregation. As expected, this is a response that benefits most insect species.  Ever wonder how foraging bees orient themselves back to the colony?  Yup, these hardworking bees release pheromones in the air fanned by their fast little wings. How does one ant from your backyard lead the rest to your kitchen? Yep, pheromone trails. When marking territories, cats, dogs and other animals use what? Say it with me: Pheromones! Even some plants have been known to secrete tannic pheromones to make themselves less appealing to herbivores. Too bad they can't escape vegetarians.

What about people? Oddly, one theory of why humans kiss is because it helps us "sniff out a quality mate". Sounds a bit primal, right? This stems from the belief that the pheromone receptors in humans are found in the olfactory system. So when our faces are close together, we're able to exchange pheromones.  While human pheromones have been marketed as a sort of love potion, the ability of humans to detect pheromones have yet to be proven by science. That's why in this case, I'll believe it when I see it, not when I smell it.

Ok then, if pheromones are not to blame when you break out into Tears for Fears' "Head over heels" while browsing relics at the National Archives, then what is? After all, when teenagers enter the dating scene - a petrifying parental stage - we are quick to blame the rule of overactive testosterone and estrogen glands.  There has got to be some "molecular triggers of love" that humans physiologically respond to, right?

Right, indeed! Anyone who's ever been in love is probably familiar with the palpitations-pink-cheeks-sweaty-palms stage. For that giddy feeling, you can thank the feel-good compounds: Dopamine, Norepinephrine and Serotonin. Dopamine, the "pleasure chemical", gives you that blissful feeling, while what you're mistaking for adrenaline-like rush of  excitement is caused by Norepinephrine. These two chemicals alone produce  intense energy, sleeplessness, craving, loss of appetite and focused attention. Sounds like the first stage of "love" to me! In other words, at this attraction phase, people tend to focus on the relationship and little else... like the road they're walking on, or the pole in front of them. 

But what about after the attraction? You know, that time when you see your partner rationally, rather than through the raging hormones of infatuation? Well, thank goodness people are equipped with the "attachment" hormone too. Oxytocin helps us develop interpersonal relationships and healthy boundaries. Interestingly enough, it is also the compound associated with the mother-infant bond, and is called the "cuddle hormone". Oh, how many times have I come accross this compound when I read about contractions and breastfeeding during my pregnancy - which I will not elaborate on in this article. You're very welcome.

Last but not least, Endorphins, which are also the body's natural painkillers, gives us that sense of peace and security which contributes to "the long haul". So, instead of sniffing people out, I'd say indulge on a few bars of chocolates to boost your happy hormones instead!

And on that note, welcome Spring!

Robin's eggs in perfect nest - picture taken outside my house in Spring '10

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

When size matters

Here's something to deflate a big ego really fast. This fantastic new tool from NASA sure can make you feel small - but not in a bad way, just in the real way. If you're feeling a bit down, this astronomy picture of the day will certainly put things in perspectives, and make you see the bigger picture. Ok, I've thrown in every pun applicable, plus the kitchen sink. Feel free to add a few more.

Moving on to the "How to" guide. Just move up and down through the dimensions of the "observable" universe.  And for great effects, crank up the music, turn off the lights, and start zooming slowly out.... Heaven...

The cartwheel galaxy - one of the many you'll see at

A lesson learned from the X-files: the truth is out there. But then again, according to Jack Nicholson, you can't handle the truth. While most folks would be stargazing at this point, and be awed by the wide expanse, here's my question for you: how much smaller do you think Science can go?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

All grown up!

There are days when I wonder when, oh when, did I start being a grown-up. Decisions, chores, bills, and a real job which I can't mess up! On top of that, I am now responsible for the well-being of a little person.

There's no manual for being a grown-up. And as I've learned, neither high school cooking class, sewing class, nor gardening class can fully prepare one for the world of adulthood.  So, while the first instict may be to cower and hide, and pass the responsibility elsewhere, here's an idea: embrace it.  

Thursday, March 1, 2012

War on Alzheimer's disease

As most of you know, I'm a staunch supporter of the war against Alzheimer's Disease.  Yes, I have taken this task at a personal level. You can learn more about why from this post. While I'm no longer in research, I try to find ways to be a part of efforts that could bring us closer to eliminating this disease. I was glad when Obama signed the National Alzheimer's Project Act, and even more so when he declared war on AD earlier this year. While there are many hurdles such as still insufficient research funding, struggling state of Pharma companies, etc, the government did allocate $50M on cutting edge research with the goal of preventing and treating this disease by 2025. To me, 2025 seems to be just around the corner.  Heck, being the planner that I am, I know which big conferences I'll be attending in 2015. Nevertheless, just the sheer amount of attention this has been getting from all sectors globally makes me think positively.  What can I say? I'm a sucker for optimism.  So, to help in the effort, I bring this cross-journal project to your attention. And I'm proud to be a part of it. To the friends and families I've lost to Alzheimer's disease, it's just one way to say I will never forget.