Improve your memory! Increase your sexual potency! Relieve your anxiety! Banish your depression! Maximize your powers of concentration! Free yourself from agonizing physical pain! It might be the midway pitch of a parent medicine salesman but, according to some leading brain researchers, you don’t need to purchase any medicine to achieve such spectacular results. The catalogue of wonders is just part of what scientists predict our own brains may be able to do for us, through recent
advances in research on a group of strange brain hormones classified as peptides. So rapid is the rate at which important discoveries are being made that scientists are holding a series of international conferences this year in an effort to correlate the meteoric advances in the field. Notes one researcher, “We are on the edge of a choose-your-mood society. Those of us who work in the field see a developing potential for nearly total control of human emotion status, mental functioning, the will to act.”
The revolutionary neurohormones,
which some scientists believe are capable of ushering us into emotional Shangri-La, have already produced dramatic results. After treatment with a peptide which is thought to stimulate the memory, a 55-year-old man in Spain, who suffered amnesia after a serious accident, was able to recall the date of his accident and the date of his wedding in addition to the ages of his wife and daughter. In another experience, 12 elderly men were given daily whiffs of a peptide-laden nasal spray. Subsequent tests revealed their increased prowess in everything from attention span to learning ability. College students, used to putting their trust at examination time in black coffee and cigarettes, reported greatly heightened levels of concentration while participating in a peptide experiment. Other researchers have reported nearly complete reversal of all symptoms of senility after treatment with specific peptides.
Neurohormones have produced everything from violent aggression to increased sexual behavior and vastly elevated pain tolerance in laboratory animals. Injected with a mental patient’s urine, presumed to contain a high peptide level, five caged rats reacted with a killing spree so violent that only one of them was alive a few minutes later. In tests with another peptide, female rats promptly assumed their characteristic mating posture. In still other experiments, rats injected with the peptide beta-endorphin rested their tails on hot plates and glowing light bulbs far longer than normal pain tolerance would allow.
For many researchers, beta-endorphin holds the most exciting potential for behavior modification. Its discovery, in fact, has been hailed in some scientific quarters as “the greatest medical breakthrough since penicillin.” Researchers have identified beta-endorphin as one of the most miraculous of substances—the body’s natural painkiller, an opiate not injected by hypodermic needle but produced by the system itself. “A non-addicting opiate drug would be a miraculous benefit in treating both severe and chronic pain and a variety of emotional problems,” says Dr. Solomon Snyder of Maryland’s Johns Hopkins University, one of the leaders on peptide research.
Like many scientific breakthroughs, the discovery of beta-endorphin is a complex, international detective story. Working in Snyder’s laboratory in 1973, graduate student Candace Pert discovered that pain-killers such as opium and its derivatives, heroin and morphine, work on specific brain receptor cells, fitting into the designated cells much like a key fitting into a lock. But despite Pert’s identification of the precise opiate reception areas, a very puzz-
ling problem remained. Why would special cells have evolved in the brain simply to accommodate a profound human weakness for the extract of the opium poppy?
The answer, researchers believed, was that the body itself must produce its own natural opiates. Confirmation came in 1975 when John Hughes and Hans Kosterlitz at the University of Aberdeen discovered two naturally occurring opiate peptides which they called enkephalins, from the Greek, meaning “in the head.” Based on his own earlier research as well as the work of the Scottish team, hormonologist C. H. Li of the University of California at San Francisco quickly isolated an even more startling natural opiateone that was from 40 to 100 times more powerful than the original enkephalins—and dubbed this new super analgesic beta-endorphin.
The presence of beta-endorphin helped explain some very perplexing human reactions to pain. Under combat conditions, soldiers often ignore serious wounds that in other circumstances would undoubtedly cause them enormous suffering. Researchers now speculate that the stress of battle, or indeed any kind of profound stress, may encourage the body to produce large
amounts of beta-endorphin to cope with unexpected crises. Such conclusions are supported by the location of most of the opiate receptors in the primitive, limbic areas of the brain, often referred to as the reptilian brain. Perhaps, theorizes Dr. Jeffery Barker of Washington’s National Institute of Health (NIH), neurohormones represent the most basic of animal survival tools—the chemical warnings that prompt such basic decisions as our instinctive fight or flight response. With Dr. Thomas G. Smith Jr. of NIH and Dr. John MacDonald of Toronto Western Hospital, Barker is now analysing the precise mechanisms by which such neurohormones transmit their messages from cell to cell.
Despite its infancy, neurohormonal experimentation has already produced some noteworthy results in the areas of addiction relief and pain control. Hard drugs lock into the opiate receptors, fooling the system into thinking it is producing its own beta-endorphin. When drug use stops, the addict experiences severe pain because the body has no reserve of natural endorphins to fall back on. Addiction researchers report that treatment with synthetic beta-endorphin significantly minimizes these traumatic withdrawal symptoms.
Some of the most fascinating research into the relationship between beta-endorphin and the transmission of pain is currently being done at the Uni-
versity of Toronto where Dr. Bruce Pomeranz has found links between the newly discovered opiate and the ancient pain-killing properties of acupuncture. Pomeranz is testing whether the insertion of acupuncture needles at specified sites stimulates the production of endorphins manufactured in the brain. “There is quite a lot of evidence that the acupuncture stimulates the production of endorphins and this blocks the transmission of pain messages to the brain,” says Pomeranz.
Without question, the most controversial areas of beta-endorphin research have involved behavior modification. After experiments by Dr. Floyd Bloom at California’s Salk Institute produced catatonic states in rats injected with beta-endorphin, researchers suspected that altered beta-endorphin levels might be related to several psychological disturbances. Operating on this premise, Dr. Nathan Kline of New York’s Rockland Research Institute and Dr. Heinz Lehmann of McGill University gave small doses of beta-endorphin to 14 of Kline’s private psychiatric patients. The pair reported immediate improvements in five cases. The result, however, did not meet with acceptance in the medical and scientific communities. Unfortunately, Kline and Lehmann had not done their work under acceptable “double blind” testing procedures in which both the real drug and a placebo are used and neither doctor nor patient knows beforehand which substance is being taken.
Several other early beta-endorphin experiments suffered from similar excesses of enthusiasm and absence of control. After reporting significant links between schizophrenia and the level of beta-endorphin in the spinal fluid, Swedish researchers were unable to reproduce their results in more strictly regulated conditions. “There is no doubt that some of this got so trendy that all kinds of tacky experiments were done,” says Dr. Ronald Melzack of McGill, an expert in the study of chronic pain. Adds Dr. John Leibeskind of UCLA, “I’ve no doubt that for a while some experiments were done just to be in fashion, so to speak. But I’ve noticed a real pulling back in the last six months. People are being very careful about what they do now.”
Despite the new note of caution, behavioral researchers remain optimistic about the future of neurohormones as behavior-modifying drugs. They point to none other than the most influential brain theorist of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud, who speculated: “In the future we will be allowed to exercise a direct influence by means of particular chemical substances upon the amounts of energy and their distribution in the apparatus of the mind.”
Are the neurohormones the fulfilment of Freud’s prediction? Researchers disagree. “No one can make behavioral generalizations based on what we know at this point,” says Jeffery Barker. Echoes Ronald Melzack: “We are still putting together pieces of a very large puzzle.” Acupuncture researcher Pomeranz takes a lower-key approach to the question. “I would hope all this leads to understanding of the natural ways to stimulate hormones like beta-endorphin,” he says. “The ancient Chinese used to have acupuncture treatments every day to maintain good
health. Maybe jogging does the same thing. I prefer to think that way than to speculate on a pill-popping 1984 society.”
But Candace Pert sees neurohormonal research as nothing less than the wave of the future. “To me, it’s absolutely sensational,” she says. “We’re learning that human emotions can be chemically started and we have a handle on how to chemically manipulate them. It just blows my mind.” Presumably, Pert’s crisis-based endorphin system would come to the rescue before such a disaster occurred.
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