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"Pre-gaming" leads to riskier behavior and more alcohol consumption, groundbreaking study finds

A Swiss study has found that "pre-drinking," "pre-funking," "pre-gaming"—basically, the ritual among college-age young adults of drinking before you go out to drink, leads to "excessive consumption and adverse consequences."

Pre-gaming didn't have a name when I was their age; it's interesting how the phenomenon (is it even a phenomenon?) has become a media meme this year. This NYT story is another example.

I realize the newly-released study provides citeable evidence about a behavior with dangerous consequences, but the results are kind of like, yo, thanks, Captain Obvious.

"Increased drinking was associated with a greater likelihood of blackouts, hangovers, absences from work or school or alcohol poisoning. Pre-drinkers were also found to engage more often in unintended drug use, unsafe sex, drunken driving or violent behavior."

Sounds about right. More in the LA Times.

Your brain, your food, and obesity

We recently hosted an article by scientist and guest blogger Stephan Guyenet that explained how certain foods—those with a high calorie density, fat, starch, sugar, salt, free glutamate (umami), certain textures (easily chewed, soft or crunchy, solid fat), certain flavors, an absence of bitterness, food variety, and drugs such as alcohol and caffeine—could trip reward systems in the human brain. Those reward systems, then, encourage people to eat more of the foods that trigger the reward. The result, says Guyenet, is a cycle that could be the link between the American obesity epidemic and the rise of highly processed convenience foods, designed specifically to trip those neural reward systems.

This theory, and several related theories, are increasingly popular in the scientific community. This week, there's an opinion piece in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience that looks at the strengths and weaknesses of these theories and talks about what research needs to be done going forward. It's kind of a space for researchers to step back and say, "Okay, here's what we know, here's what's not lining up with what we think we know, and here's what we have to do if we want to understand this better." In the context of science, an article like this isn't really a slam against the ideas it analyzes. Instead, it's meant to summarize the state of the science and share ideas that could either strengthen the case, or lead down entirely new roads.

Sadly, you can't read this article unless you have a subscription to Nature Reviews Neuroscience (or pay them $32 for single article access).

Luckily, Scicurious, a neuroscientist and an excellent blogger, has read the article, and has a nice run-down of what it's saying and what you should know. Some of the ideas being discussed here overlap with Stephan Guyenet's research. Some don't. But this is connected enough that I thought you guys would be interested in reading more and getting more perspectives on this issue. Let me make this clear, though: Guyenet isn't doing bad science. As with a lot of scientific research, there's often more than one way to look at the same data. Scientists can disagree without one person having to be all-wrong and another all-right. In fact, having different scientists working on the same subject is a key part of getting the facts right.

As you read, you'll notice that an important place where Scicurious' perspective really differs from Guyenet's is in terms of connecting the idea of "addiction" to certain foods back to the idea of an obesity epidemic.

...is there a place for food addiction? The authors think so, and I am inclined to agree. However, it needs to be much more stringent than the current model of food addiction that many people want to embrace (the idea that sugar makes you addicted or that being overweight means you have a problem). Changes need to be made.

First off, it's important to separate food addiction from obesity. Binge eating does not necessarily mean you are overweight, and being overweight does not necessarily mean that you binge eat. Ranking by BMI is not going to work.

Read Scicurious' full post.

(Via the illustrious Ed Yong. Image: Fabio Berti, Shutterstock)

What reward does your brain actually seek?


Dopamine Jackpot! Sapolsky on the Science of... by FORAtv

Dopamine does a lot of things, but you're probably most familiar with it as the chemical your brain uses as a sort-of system of in-game gold coins. You earn the reward for certain behaviors, usually "lizard-brain" type stuff—eating a bowl of pudding, for instance, or finally making out with that cute person you've had your eye on. And, as you've probably heard, there's some evidence that we can get addicted to that burst of dopamine, and that's how a nice dessert or an enjoyable crush turns into something like compulsive eating or sex addiction.

Neurologist Robert Sapolsky puts an interesting twist on this old story, though. What if it isn't the burst of dopamine that we get addicted to, but the anticipation of a burst of dopamine? It's a small distinction. But it matters, he says, if our reward system is based less on happiness than on the pursuit of happiness.

For more on this, check out David Bradley's post on this video, which also links back to a more-detailed discussion of the basics of dopamine addiction.