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Dopamine and the Weather, Part 2

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  • (0:45) - The Century of Biology
  • (8:00) – Wonderful Dopamine: The Attention Drug
  • (21:30) – Memory, Emotion and Learning Complete the Loop
  • (33:00) - Dopamine in the Noisy Concert of Consciousness
  • (39:05) - The Cerebral Symphony: Arouse, Orient, Detect, Execute
  • (43:10) – Find Your Flow: 5 Ways To Learn More, Better, Faster

Welcome back to Mind Over Money. I’m Kevin Cook, your field guide and story teller for the fascinating arena of behavioral economics.

In part 1 of this “chautauqua,” I attempted to connect several ideas about technology and science in the light of what we have learned in the past 30 years or so about human nature and human behavior.

Note the distinction between human nature and human behavior. Behavior varies widely across cultures where cooking, language, clothing, music, religion, technology, war and dozens of other customs have incredible diversity. But when we talk about human nature we mean the root causes and drivers of behavior that tend to be common among all humans as a species -- disease aside.

These would include brain structure and function, genetic predispositions or “programs” (i.e., our software), and various theories and puzzles about evolutionary psychology that inspire scientists to work backwards and attempt to solve for X.

In other words, cognitive, behavioral and social researchers ask questions like “Why do humans across cultures experience rage, jealousy, sorrow, joy, apathy, shame and laughter and what forces in our brains, our evolutionary past and our genetic make-up create these natural responses in social encounters?”

And what about language -- why is that a universal human trait with many similarities of syntax across cultures that have never had contact? We could also add music to this list. Think about the work of Mickey Hart, long-time drummer for the Grateful Dead who has spent a lifetime sharing and preserving the indigenous rhythms of cultures around the world.

If we have time, we’ll come back to Mickey and his brain on music, as he now seeks to find rhythm-based cures for Alzheimer’s.

This propensity to ask questions about fundamental human nature, and our challenges to understand and agree on it, are why in Part 1 I thought it was important to begin a discussion about brains and weather with a biological understanding of human nature.

I used an essay by Steven Pinker to help get us started. That essay was actually excerpts from his 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. You can find those excerpts and an interview with Pinker which condenses these ideas on the excellent thinking person’s website at this link...

A Biological Understanding of Human Nature

Amen for Brain Scans!

Now, why would the last 30 years of scientific research be more important than the previous 30 or 3,000 years in our quest to understand what we are, where we came from, and why we act the way we do? Because our knowledge of human nature and behavior has been vaulted exponentially since the explosion of research involving not only paleoanthropology and genetics, but almost as much by brain imaging. You need only listen to Dr. Daniel Amen on his own metamorphosis and life’s work to understand this.

After the Army, Amen finished medical school and became a psychiatrist, the only medical field where doctors don't actually look at the organ they are treating. But he was also trained as an X-ray technician in the Army and developed a love for medical imaging. In 1991, he was able to marry to two fields and spent the next two decades building the world’s largest database of brain scans.

His TEDx Talk from 2013 is called The most important lesson from 83,000 brain scans.

I highly recommend you watch it. Make it your most important 15-minutes on YouTube this week.

Professor Feynman Would Give Me an A+ in Failure

The physicist Richard Feynman used to say that the best way to learn something was to simply dive in and try to teach it to others. This has been a favorite strategy of mine most of my adult life and it has worked amazingly well for me in science, technology, history, and investing – especially after I fail at something.

It's part of my Chaos Theory of Learning. Or as Bill Nye might call it, "everything all at once."

So what was my failing? Part 1 of “Dopamine and the Weather” ran a little over-time at 51 minutes. As usual, sometimes I try to accomplish too much, try to connect too many ideas in a single podcast. As a result, I also did not do justice to dopamine in my explanation of it. I will repair that failing today in a moment.

But first, in my defense for trying to string together too many ideas in a single episode, let me say that the threads of the fabric I was trying to connect were already there. They had just been ripped apart by modern technology and society, where we don't learn some of the most important connections in the physical and social sciences because every subject is taught as a separate course, with great detail, at the expense of deep and wide connections.

This is our modern education system that seeks to create specialists first and foremost. That’s where the jobs are, after all. And most kids are too busy being distracted by TV -- or maybe now it’s social media and video games -- to get a real and full education in the sciences, even in college.

And so, given this challenge, it takes me a while once I get started weaving and re-weaving the fabric of a full education.

The ancients, from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to the Buddha, Lao Tse, and Confucius saw more connections and wholeness in knowledge and values than the average college graduate of the 20th century.

I am holding out hope for the college grads of the 21st C as it truly is the century of biology and the life sciences. I know, I know… the computer geeks think it’s the century of artificial intelligence, but AI will just be a tool of genetic engineering.

And even if I’ve got that wrong and the future looks much different than I imagine, it will be a wild and fun ride for those who are educated in the sciences -- and for those who learn to invest in the companies creating the future that uses AI, brain science, and genetic technologies.

For these reasons, I am in investor in bleeding-edge companies like NVIDIA (NVDA - Free Report) , bluebird bio (BLUE - Free Report) , and CRISPR Therapeutics (CRSP - Free Report) .

So my work as a technology investor, stock market trail-blazer, philosophy teacher and science preacher is to keep putting the strings back together into a fabric that makes sense, has integrity (i.e., it’s truthful), and can be used to make your life incredibly rich.

And hopefully we make some money along the way too!

Three Cheers for Dopamine!

In Part 1, we talked about how the anticipation of most types of rewards increases the level of dopamine in the brain and how many addictive drugs increase dopamine release or block its reabsorption into neurons following release, thereby creating addiction by interfering with normal dopamine transmission.

What I didn’t do a good job with in explaining dopamine is how it is often activated simply by the anticipation of reward, and not merely the arrival of the reward and its corresponding pleasure. This gets more to heart of why dopamine makes us feel good and what role feeling good has beyond merely compelling us to eat or seek out a mate.

And this is massively important because this puts dopamine at the center of attention, memory, motivation and, as we will see, learning. At the end of today’s episode I am going to give you a 5-part strategy to learn more, better, and faster than you ever thought you could.

Some scientists call this whirlwind of neurobiology that dopamine is central to “incentive salience,” which is a fancy, theoretical description for a multidimensional process that concerns the regulating of desire, attention and its corresponding motivation. Once our desire is aroused and alerted, dopamine keeps the anticipation going.

It’s all about the physiological excitement, the wanting of something rewarding and pleasurable that is nearby or available in the near future. This is what sustains our attention and drives our behavior when dopamine kicks in and tells our brains how important something is to us, how good we will feel once we have attained it because we feel good even before we have it.

Before incentive salience became the textbook terminology, I simply learned about dopamine as “the attention drug” from the Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and brain expert (the two are not the same) Dr. John Ratey. I should be clear that Ratey didn’t call dopamine “the attention drug.” That’s just what I’m calling it now after doing more homework on it with his help.

And now I've expanded that to call dopamine the "attention, memory, learning" drug.

You can hear my whole discussion of this, including the emotional connections in our midbrain structures that add intensity to the attention-memory-learning loop, in the podcast.

Plus, I share my 5-part strategy for learning more, better, and faster to achieve any goal of knowledge or skill. Or simply to be more productive and achieve your biggest goals.

The Spark of Dr. Ratey

In the podcast, I consult the excellent work of Dr. Ratey to help us get to a better understanding of our brain's own natural wonder drug. I shared some of the wonderful professor’s excellent 2001 book A User’s Guide to the Brain in an episode from August of 2017 titled What You See, and What You Get: The Neurology of Perception.

Dr. Ratey is an expert on ADD and ADHD and so he knows as much about the attention and reward systems of the brain as anyone. Here's an example of his gift to communicate complex neuroscience in easy to grasp terms as he explains the Arouse, Orient, Detect, Execute loop of human consciousness...

Once we are aroused and oriented, the reward and novelty system kicks in, governed by the mesolimbic pathway (a group of dopamine-containing neurons), which is a key driver of the limbic system. This system is integral not only to attention but to many other brain functions, notably the emotional and social brain.

Detecting novelty and seeking reward are the two primary forces that direct the selection of where to focus our attention. The novelty system takes note of new stimuli. The reward system produces sensations of pleasure, assigning an emotional value to stimulus, which also marks it for memory. If, later, the same stimulus reappears, the memory of these visceral emotions provides a response, from joy to disgust, which then directs the individual to seek out a plan of action.

Ratey also explains the interplay of dopamine with disorders like Parkinson's where "no dopamine means no muscular coordination." It also means a variety of non-motor neurological symptoms including cognitive problems with attention, planning, language, memory, and hallucinations, delusions, or even dementia.

Followers of my portfolios at Zacks know that I have been a frequent investor in Acadia Pharmaceuticals (ACAD - Free Report) , maker of NUPLAZID (pimavanserin), the first and only medication approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of hallucinations and delusions associated with Parkinson’s disease psychosis.

Run, Jump, Learn!

Dr. Ratey's latest work has focused on exercise as the key ingredient of a healthy brain. In 2008 he published the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

And in 2012, he gave a must-watch TED Talk titled Run, Jump, Learn! How Exercise can Transform our Schools.

Earlier, I mentioned another creative teacher named Mickey Hart and his effort to help brains suffering from Alzheimer's. It appears that what Ratey is teaching with exercise, Hart has been doing with music at concerts where his cerebral lobes are connected to imaging equipment and displayed on massive screens overhead so that fans can see his “brain on music.”

I have also been an investor in Biogen (BIIB - Free Report) , maker of two different drugs in clinical trials to treat Alzheimer's. Unfortunately, I sold my position recently as the stock fell below $300. The stock vaulted to $350 last week on positive data for the company's amyloid plaque-targeting drug.

What threw me off was that almost every clinical trial in dementia-related R&D (about 99.6%, to be exact) has failed in the past decade or so. Even Pfizer "threw in the towel" recently in the search for new compounds.

And neuroscientist dementia experts have always questioned the narrow focus from Biotech companies on amyloid proteins as the cause-and-cure battleground.

Even now, this is a lot of excitement for a Phase 2 trial. The data was “statistically significant” evidence that BAN-2401, an antibody targeting the beta amyloid protein, can slow progression of the deadly disease in terms of both cognition and amyloid reduction. But most analysts are still predicting the final drug has only a 50 percent chance of getting approved after Phase 3 trials.

Aducanumab is Biogen's other Alzheimer's drug currently in Phase 3 trials that we won't see data from until 2020. When Biogen had to expand the study size (number of patients) in trials of both drugs, that's when sentiment turned so sour on BIIB shares. So this was a review of BAN-2401 at 18 months after it was originally deemed unsuccessful after 12 months. This time, the 856 patients in the trial “demonstrated a statistically significant slowing of disease progression” compared to those taking a placebo.

One company with a better than 50% chance of success with two drugs for Alzheimer's is probably an investment being reconsidered by many who sold the stock along with me below $300. As the manager of a model portfolio at Zacks called Healthcare Innovators, I posed this question to my subscribers last week...

Should We Have Exposure to Alzheimer's?

I think the answer is undoubtedly "YES." The most common form of dementia, it is believed by some experts that Alzheimer's could single-handedly bankrupt Medicare in a matter of decades. The degeneration of neural function is so rapid and debilitating that researchers will not give up the fight -- or the heavy R&D investment -- to find cures or even stabilizing treatments.

But until a cure is found, make sure you and yours know about exercise, music, and my 5-part strategy for learning more, better, and faster as the prevention for Alzheimer's. I've nicknamed my strategy "AMYL" which is also the first 4 letters of amyloid, the protein plaque that is believed to drown neurons in Alzheimer’s.

Be sure to check out the podcast to hear what AMYL stands for!

Disclosure: I own share of NVDA for Zacks TAZR Trader and shares of BLUE and CRSP for Zacks Healthcare Innovators.

Kevin Cook is a Senior Stock Strategist for Zacks Investment Research where he runs the Healthcare Innovators and TAZR Trader services. Click Follow Author above to receive his latest stock research and macro analysis.

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