Video produced by Roxanne Makasdjian, UC Berkeley Media Relations

BERKELEY — Across America, 2011 begins a new year of reflection, gratitude and sharing. These emotions are the focus of wide-ranging scholarship at the University of California, Berkeley, where researchers are investigating the science of happiness and compassion. In the video linked here, UC Berkeley psychologists Dacher Keltner, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton and sociologists Robb Willer and Christine Carter describe the work that supports the hypothesis that “survival of the kindest” is the key to our success as a species.

LeWhif LeWhif, by Nicole Dyer —  Why swallow your vitamins when you can huff them? That’s the general thinking behind the world’s first breathable vitamin, called LeWhif Vitamin, which launched in the UK earlier this month and is expected to hit the US market this week.

The creation of Harvard biomedical engineer David Edwards, inventor of inhalable insulin, inhalable chocolate and inhalable coffee, LeWhif Vitamin is a lipstick-like delivery device that works a lot like a miniature pipe, only instead of inhaling smoke with each toke, you inhale a fine powder of healing supplements (a sort of anti-smoke) that dissolves in your mouth. By skipping the digestive system, which breaks down pills and diverts many of their active ingredients to the liver, LeWhif Vitamins claims to deliver more concentrated doses of nutrients into the bloodstream. Eight hits supplies 100 percent of the daily recommended amount of A, B1, B2, B3 and B5.

Whiffing takes practice, however. When I tried my first hit of inhalable chocolate a few weeks ago with Edwards, I nearly choked to death. Edwards quickly corrected my technique. “It’s just a gentle breath, like this,” he said, as he took a quick hit off his coffee pipe. Inhale too hard and the particles can fly into the back of your throat. Once I got the technique down, the experience was surprisingly pleasant, and almost delicious, although my illicit-seeming huffs drew suspicious glances from strangers. I’ve yet to sample the vitamins, but they work the same way, and come in three tea flavors—Antioxidant Green Tea, Age Smart Wine Tea (with resveratrol) and Hibiscus Tea.

Inhalable vitamins are an innovative alternative to those one-a-day horse pills that leave your urine neon, but huffing supplements is insanely pricey: In England, a 3-day supply costs £4.99 (or about $8; no word yet on US pricing). That said, the money goes to a worthy cause, as it funds Edwards’ novel idea laboratory, called ArtScience Labs, which helps student inventors bring daring innovations, a la huffable supplements, to market.

Graphic Credit: Tim Robinson

“Each negative event a person faces leads to an attempt to cope, which forces people to learn about their own capabilities, about their  resilience , about their support networks — to learn who their real friends are.  That kind of learning  is extremely valuable for subsequent coping”

The New York Times, January 4, 2011, by Benedict Carey  —  Whatever else it holds, this new year is sure to produce a healthy serving of redemption stories, against-the-odds tales of people who bounced back from the layoffs, foreclosures and other wreckage of 2010. They landed better jobs. They started successful companies. They found time to write a book, to study animal husbandry, to learn a new trade: to generate just the sort of commentary about perseverance, self-respect and character that can tempt anyone who’s still struggling to throw things at the TV.

Character is a fine thing to admire, all right — once the storm has passed and the rigging is repaired.

But when people are truly sinking, because of job loss, illness, debt or some combination of ills, they have no idea what mix of character, connections and dumb luck will be enough to pull through. To use the psychologists’ term, they don’t know how “resilient” they are, or how much resilience even matters.

Do I have the right stuff? Or is this sinkhole simply too deep?

“As with so many of life’s experiences, humans are simply not very good at predicting how they’ll behave when hit by a real adversity,” said Laura King, a psychologist at the University of Missouri.

Researchers aren’t so good at it, either. It is clear that with time, most people can and do psychologically recover from even devastating losses, like the death of a spouse; but reactions to the same blow vary widely, and no one can reliably predict who will move on quickly and who will lapse into longer-term despair.

The role of genes is likewise uncertain. In a paper published online Monday in The Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers at the University of Michigan who analyzed more than 50 studies concluded that variations in a single gene determine people’s susceptibility to depression following stressful events. But an earlier analysis, of fewer but similar studies, concluded that the evidence was not convincing.

New research suggests that resilience may have at least as much to do with how often people have faced adversity in past as it does with who they are — their personality, their genes, for example — or what they’re facing now. That is, the number of life blows a person has taken may affect his or her mental toughness more than any other factor.

“Frequency makes a difference: that is the message,” said Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine. “Each negative event a person faces leads to an attempt to cope, which forces people to learn about their own capabilities, about their support networks — to learn who their real friends are. That kind of learning, we think, is extremely valuable for subsequent coping,” up to a point.

In a study appearing in the current issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Dr. Cohen Silver, E. Alison Holman, also of the University of California, Irvine, and Mark D. Seery, of the State University at Buffalo, followed nearly 2,000 adults for several years, monitoring their mental well-being with online surveys. The participants, a diverse cross section of Americans between the ages of 18 and 101, listed all of the upsetting life events they had experienced before entering the study and any new ones that hit along the way. These included divorce, the death of a friend or parent, a serious illness, and being in a natural disaster.

Or, none of the above: A subset of the participants, 194, reported that they had experienced not one of the fairly comprehensive list of 37 events on the survey. “We wondered: Who are these people who have managed to go through life with nothing bad happening to them?”  Dr. Cohen Silver said.  “Are they hyper-conscientious?  Socially isolated? Just young?  Or otherwise unique?”

They weren’t, the researchers found. Stranger still, they were not the most satisfied with their lives. Their sense of well-being was about the same, on average, as people who had suffered up to a dozen memorable blows.

It was those in the middle, those reporting two to six stressful events, who scored highest on several measures of well-being, and who showed the most resilience in response to recent hits.

In short, the findings suggest that mental toughness is something like the physical strength: It cannot develop without exercise, and it breaks down when overworked. Some people in the study reported having had more than a dozen stressful events, and it showed.

“These people were truly suffering,” Dr. Cohen Silver said, “and we do not minimize in any way the pain of such events when you’re going through them. But it does appear that if you’ve had several such experiences but not too many, you learn something.”

Other researchers who looked at the study were more cautious. George Bonanno, a psychologist at Columbia University, said that the results may partly reflect a trick of memory. In particular, “people who are more distressed will tend to recall more stressful life events,” Dr. Bonanno, the author of the book “The Other Side of Sadness,” said by e-mail. That by itself could explain the correlation between high numbers of lifetime crises and low current mood, he said.

It does not as easily explain the correlations at the lower end, Dr. Seery said. “The people in the study who recalled zero or one negative events were worse off than those with some adverse events,” he said. “So they were willing to admit to not doing so well, yet did not recall stressful life events.”

Experience may provide more than a sense of what to expect and who one’s real friends are. In a recent study in the journal Emotion, researchers at the University of Denver and the University of Basel in Switzerland tested the ability of 78 women to reduce the amount of sadness they felt after watching an upsetting film clip, using a technique called reappraisal. Reappraisal comes naturally to many people and is a way of taking the sting out of a situation by reframing how it’s understood: “I wasn’t afraid to act, I was uncertain; I didn’t have all the information.” The study found that the women who were adept at this sort of self-therapy were less susceptible to depressive symptoms after significant crises in their own lives.

It may be that experience with a few threatening or upsetting events refines these types of psychological skills, in a person’s own thinking through of the problem or in discussion with friends.

Either way, the lifetime resilience study suggests that the pain, the self-doubt, the disorientation and the anger that swarm the consciousness in the wake of a job loss, a foreclosure or a divorce can have some upside, even though it’s not remotely visible at the time.

“Perhaps the one most fundamental thing you learn in living through an experience like this is that you can come out the other end of almost anything,” Dr. King said. “You say, ‘Well, it may have crushed me, but I survived.’ ”

Andrea Whittemore-Goad, who has had chronic fatigue syndrome since age 12, was featured in a Times article, last year about a virus that may be linked to the illness

Photo: Candice Towell for The New York Times

The New York Times, January 4, 2011, by Toby Bilanow  —  In today’s Science Times, David Tuller reports on recent developments surrounding chronic fatigue syndrome, a mysterious illness of unknown cause that may be linked to a virus. In December, a medical advisory panel suggested that the Food and Drug Administration ban blood donations by people with a history of C.F.S., a move that was hailed by many patients as a sign that their illness was finally being taken seriously.

But then, a medical journal published four papers suggesting that key findings in the earlier studies linking chronic fatigue syndrome to a retrovirus, the same family as H.I.V., could have resulted from laboratory contamination.

The unsettled situation has created a quandary for patients with chronic fatigue syndrome and the doctors who treat them. Some patients are seeking to be treated with H.I.V. drugs, which doctors can legally prescribe even though the F.D.A. has not approved them for that purpose. Many doctors and researchers say it is too early to prescribe the drugs for chronic fatigue because of possible side effects, like bone marrow suppression, gastrointestinal problems and liver or kidney dysfunction, among others.

Read more about chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)…..


Chronic fatigue syndrome causes a host of debilitating symptoms: profound exhaustion, disordered sleep, muscle and joint pain and severe cognitive problems, among others. But what causes the syndrome itself?

Since the first cases in the United States were identified in the 1980s, scientists have been divided over that question. Some have suspected that one or more viral infections are likely to play a central role.

But many other researchers — not to mention relatives, friends, employers, doctors and insurers of the million or more Americans estimated to suffer from the illness — have dismissed it as stress-related, psychosomatic or simply imaginary.

Now recent back-to-back announcements have highlighted both the volatility of the issue and the ambiguity of the science, and have alternately heartened and dismayed patients.

On Dec. 14, an advisory panel suggested that the Food and Drug Administration ban blood donations by people with a history of C.F.S., as the illness is often called. The goal was to prevent the possible spread of viruses that two high-profile studies had linked to the condition.

But then, on Dec. 20, the journal Retrovirology published four papers suggesting that key findings in those studies could have resulted from laboratory contamination.

The F.D.A. is not required to accept the opinion of its advisory panel. Yet patients still hailed the recommendation as a sign that their illness was being taken seriously.

“When an F.D.A. panel suggests that patients with C.F.S. not donate blood, that’s going to impact the way doctors think about it,” said Mary Schweitzer, a former history professor at Villanova, who has frequently written about living with the illness. Dr. Schweitzer said she has been unable to work for 16 years because of the syndrome, which was diagnosed after she suffered from a series of flulike illnesses.

The studies that concerned the F.D.A. had reported that people with the syndrome, which is also called myalgic encephalomyelitis or myalgic encephalopathy in Europe, showed higher rates of infection with the virus XMRV or others from the same category, known as MLV-related viruses. (These viruses are all relatives of mouse leukemia viruses, some of which can infect species other than mice; their role in human disease, if any, remains poorly understood.)

But several other research teams in the last year have found no connection between chronic fatigue syndrome and these viruses, although none tried to replicate the exact methods used by researchers who reported an association.

The new papers in Retrovirology reported that contamination of tissue samples or other laboratory items with mouse DNA or viral genetic material could lead to false positive results for XMRV, and by extension other MLV-related viruses, specifically when using polymerase chain reaction technology. The technique rapidly produces millions of copies of genetic segments, so even minute traces of genetic contamination can skew results.

“Our conclusion is quite simple: XMRV is not the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome,” said the senior author of one of the studies, Greg Towers, a professor of virology at University College London, in a statement released by Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, the British research center that co-sponsored it.

Other scientists and advocates for patients have sharply criticized such certainty as unwarranted, noting that the Retrovirology papers themselves expressed their findings in more cautious terms. The critics agree that contamination can be a serious issue when using polymerase chain reaction technology. But the new papers, said Eric Gordon, a doctor in Santa Rosa, Calif., who treats many patients with the illness, do not evaluate other strategies besides P.C.R., as the technique is known, for detecting the MLV-related viruses, like testing for an immune response and culturing the viruses in cell lines.

“The articles make the point that P.C.R. doesn’t work that well for these viruses, and then they act like that disproves the whole idea,” said Dr. Gordon.

XMRV was first identified in 2006 and has been detected in prostate cancer patients in some studies. It was linked to chronic fatigue syndrome in October 2009 in a paper in the journal Science by researchers from the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease at the University of Nevada, Reno, the National Cancer Institute and the Cleveland Clinic.

The researchers relied on P.C.R. technology to show that about two-thirds of patients but less than 4 percent of control subjects harbored XMRV. Using other technologies, however, they also documented an antibody response in some chronic fatigue syndrome patients, and reported that XMRV in human blood could infect other human cell lines.

In a statement responding to the new papers in Retrovirology, Judy A. Mikovits, director of research at Whittemore Peterson and the senior author of the Science study, said her team took extensive steps to rule out P.C.R. contamination and also focused on other approaches to finding XMRV. “Nothing that has been published to date refutes our data,” she said.

Even some specialists stumbled over the meaning of the new findings. Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology at Columbia not involved in the research, apologized on his Virology Blog for having stated that it was likely to spell “the beginning of the end” for the proposed connection between the viruses and chronic fatigue syndrome.

After reviewing the issue more thoroughly, he wrote, he realized that the new studies “show that identification of XMRV can be fraught with contamination problems, but they do not imply that previously published studies are compromised.” He added, “If I had difficulties interpreting these papers, how would nonscientists fare?”

Federal agencies have come down on different sides of the issue. In a paper published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in August, researchers from the National Institutes of Health and the F.D.A. found a link between the fatigue syndrome and MLV-related viruses (although not specifically XMRV). In contrast, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was among those not reporting a link.

Federal health officials have organized two research efforts to resolve the inconsistencies, determine whether XMRV and MLV-related viruses are possible human pathogens, and identify reliable ways to detect them. Patients hope the increased attention will quickly lead to research on treatments, including clinical trials of H.I.V. drugs, some of which have been shown in lab studies to inhibit the replication of XMRV.

The unsettled situation has created a quandary for patients with chronic fatigue syndrome and the doctors who treat them. Some patients are seeking to be treated with H.I.V. drugs, which doctors can legally prescribe even though the F.D.A. has not approved them for that purpose.

Many doctors and researchers say it is too early to prescribe the drugs for chronic fatigue because of possible side effects, like bone marrow suppression, gastrointestinal problems and liver or kidney dysfunction, among others. But Michael Allen, a writer and a former psychologist in San Francisco who has been disabled for more than 15 years, said he wouldn’t hesitate to try the medications if he found out he was positive for an MLV-related virus.

“It feels patronizing when the medical establishment says the side effects are too risky and we should keep waiting,” he said. “What that says to me is they have no idea whatsoever how sick people like me have been with this disease.”