I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

August 7, 2010

Ecological Intelligence

I recently began reading Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, who  is probably best known for his books on Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence.  He puts ecological intelligence in a different category that some of the other intelligences identified by Howard Gardner in that ecological intelligence has to be developed because the activities, and the impacts they have, are beyond our awareness and occur at such slow rates that there was no need for humans to develop that type of intelligence.  Climate change is one such example.

The subtitle is “How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything.”  He focuses on many of the same issues that William McDonough in Cradle to Cradle and Annie Leonard in The Story of Stuff do.  I found it delightfully surprising that a book by an author known for books on issues like emotional intelligence starts right off with a discussion of Life Cycle Assessment and industrial ecology.  (In fact, he refers to William McDonough’s “cradle to cradle” approach in several places.)

His discussion of why “green” isn’t always as green as it seems is useful for anyone wanting to make ecologically responsible purchases.

Goleman argues that one of the best ways to increase our ecological intelligence is through full disclosure of the impact of the products we buy, the notion of radical transparency.  He cites examples such as companies being required to disclose their financial workings as examples of how that disclosure helps investors make better decisions.

He weaves together stories about the effect of synthetic chemicals on our bodies, especially on our immune systems, and discusses how inflammation and oxidative stress could be at the root of all sorts of diseases (going well beyond cancer).  Body burden, toxicology, epigenetics, and green supply chains are all covered, even if only briefly.  He weaves together these topics in a very readable, understandable fashion.

Postscript: Just checked out his website for the first time.  His latest blog post is entitled “Leading sustainability” and discusses how consumers can use resources like GoodGuide.com to make more informed choices.  And I’m encouraged by the fact that he is working with folks like Peter Senge, a management guru.

March 21, 2010

Epigenetics and environmental health: The emerging science

The more we learn, the more we realize how much we don’t know.  A committee of the National Academy of Sciences held a workshop on July 30–31, 2009, to further understanding of the implications of epigenetic effects on public health and of the research that would be most important for efforts to inform public health leaders about epigenetic effects of chemicals.

What are the human health outcomes when genes (such as a tumor-suppressor gene) are turned on or off at different stages in life and in various tissues? Scientific evidence on animals and humans suggests that epigenetic changes are important and may be passed from one generation to the next.

The newsletter cited below gets a little technical, but provides an excellent overview of issues surrounding epigenetics.  I’ve summarized some of it.  (Most of this is over my head, but I think it’s evidence that we don’t have a full understanding of how the human body works and even less of an idea about how all sorts of environmental factors can affect it.)

Highlights of the meeting

  • What epigenetics is and how it works
  • Differences between genetics and epigenetics during animal development
  • DNA methylation, histone modifications, and transgenerational potential of effects

Possible Causes and Outcomes of Epigenetic Changes

Participants discussed how environmental chemicals, estrogenic compounds, and even social factors, such as child abuse and maternal care, may cause epigenetic changes.

Compounds such as nickel can induce hypermethylation and lead to altered gene expression patterns that can be inherited and lead to a growth or survival advantage for and lead to a growth or survival advantage for cancer cells.

In the late 1990s scientists showed that there was an association between dietary changes and changes in DNA methylation in mice.

Maternal behavior of rats affected DNA methylation of the glucocorticoid receptor gene in the hippocampus of the rat offspring.

One scientist reported that the effects of childhood social adversity on overall methylation patterns were more pronounced than the effects of having a mother who smoked.

Epigenetic changes related to cancer and asthma are being studied.

Possible tools and approaches, such as assay technologies,  for identifying environmental epigenetic stressors.

The following were among the topics discussed: biomarkers of disease susceptibility, animal models for studying epigenetics, screening tools, low-dose responses, interplay between genetics and epigenetics, epigenetic changes as exposure markers

Summary of the meeting by the moderator (p.3)

A half-page table which briefly describes discussion about our understanding of the epigenome and how we might be able to test for epigenetic changes.

Emerging Science for Environmental Health Decisions Newsletter: Use of Emerging Science and Technologies to Explore Epigenetic Mechanisms Underlying the Developmental Basis for Disease (PDF)

Workshop Webcast: Presentations on Emerging Science and Environmental Health

Presentations are available in mp3 (or mp4) and wmv formats.  Some include a PDF version.

Meeting sponsored by the Standing Committee on Use of Emerging Science for Environmental Health Decisions of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology

Games, cortisol, epigenetics, and behavior

Haven’t really dealt with the digital lifestyle recently (see earlier posts The Virtual Frontier and Impact of technology on kids’ thinking abilities).

The following was thought-provoking:

The Children of Cyberspace: Old Fogies by Their 20s

Also came across the following that struck me as a nice summary of both positive and negative effects of video games (and, by extension, of online games as well).

How Video Games Affect Health (from fat food)

Notes that many negative effects aren’t directly caused by games, but by an excessive amount of time spent playing them.  (Of course, that’s true of many things.)

Still, given the possibility that outside stimulation might actually affect how the brain is wired (see below), I’m certainly going to be a little more cautious.

From Maternal Care Affects Adult Stress (a little dated—though I think I’ve seen something recently about maternal behavior can effect epigenetic changes):

The studies, presented at a [2003] conference on the fetal and infant origins of adult disease, found that baby rats who were licked by their mothers a lot turned out to be less anxious and fearful as adults and produced lower levels of stress hormones than those who were groomed less.

The scientists found that the mothers’ licking caused the baby’s brain to crank up a gene involved in soothing the body in stressful situations.

The rat research was led by Michael Meaney, a professor of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

How the mothers’ grooming is thought to have affected their offspring’s behavior:

The brain contains receptors for stress hormones such as cortisol. The more receptors there are, the more sensitive the brain is to cortisol and the easier it is for the brain to tell the adrenal glands when to stop cranking out the hormones. The receptors set the tone for how the body responds to stress.

Meaney found that the rats who were reared with much licking had more cortisol receptors in their brains than the others and he determined why and how. He examined the DNA of about 50 rats who were licked a lot and another 50 who were not.

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