Feel Good, Inc.

A nice juicy double-bacon cheeseburger.
An herb-crusted rack of lamb.
Filet Mignon, served with a lobster tail.

What do these all have in common? They’re delicious, and (at least for me) invoke a sense of bliss. Researchers now believe this sense of bliss involves a cannabinoid-like molecule produced naturally by the body, known as “anandamide”. This hormone is normally present in the blood at very low levels because it gets broken down by an enzyme known as FAAH. So far, researchers have shown that feeding rats reduces the activity of this enzyme, resulting in an increase in anandamide levels in the blood, which would suggest that anandamine might be the reason why eating feels so damn good.

However, there’s a whole other story to anandamide that doesn’t even involve food. In last week’s Sunday Review from the New York TImes, Richard Friedman talks about how this hormone, and the enzyme that breaks it down, may explain why some people are naturally less anxious than others. See, scientists have recently discovered that 20% of Americans have a mutation (alteration) in the DNA that instructs the body on how to make FAAH. This mutation results in a decrease in FAAH production, which subsequently increases the day-to-day levels of anandamide in the blood. As Richard explains, people carrying this mutation tend to be less anxious, and apparently less interested in marijuana too. The decreased inclination to marijuana most likely stems from the fact that the chemical structure of anadamide is quite close to THC and that anandamide is able to bind to the same cellular receptors that THC binds to.

Although well written, there’s one thing about his article that doesn’t quite sit well with me. In his article, Richard calls FAAH, the “feel good gene”, which I personally don’t like. There’s no one gene that is in charge of “bliss”. I hate when science writers headline/advertise a gene like that. Bliss, and other emotions, can’t be simply described by just the activities of one gene. Rather, FAAH and anandamide are likely just a small piece of the bigger picture. There’s not just a single “feel good gene”, there’s a whole assortment of them! Though an interesting story, I believe oversimplifications like his are sometimes harmful to the proper dissemination of science to the masses.

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