Running a marathon, cortisol, depression, causes, effects, and agendas

Let’s imagine that you decide you want to run a marathon. You haven’t run in six months, and you know you’ll have to train.

On the first day of training, as you run your first mile a friend pops out of nowhere and says, “You’re sweating! That means you’re going up to Mile 14 today! Good job, you’re on your way!”

You may appreciate the encouragement, but does the friend’s assessment have anything to do with your physical reality? Before you’ve run one mile, can an observer of your sweat say with certainty that you’ll run 14 miles on your first day of training?

Yeah. That’s how I felt when reading this 2014 UK study that found:

“Adolescent boys who have high levels of stress hormone ‘cortisol’ along with some symptoms of depression are at a 14 times higher risk of the condition than their peers.”

The researchers latched onto teenagers (12-16 years old, mean 13.7) to assess a psychiatric condition. The researchers stated that a physical effect as common as visible sweat was a biomarker that predicted where some of the teenagers were going with their lives.


The study’s only physical measurements were cortisol from saliva samples at 8:00 a.m. on four consecutive days, then repeated a year later. For comparison, the standard lab test is to measure cortisol from saliva taken four times in one day at 9:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., 5:00 p.m., and 9:00 p.m.

Cortisol is an effect of multiple potential causes, including stress, which itself is often an effect of multiple potential causes. One common cause of stress and its cortisol byproduct is diet, for example, when a person consumes caffeine.

“Mean time between waking and morning-cortisol collection was 50 min.”

I found it hard to believe that teenagers who:

  • woke up at 7:10 a.m.,
  • gulped down who knows what for breakfast,
  • got ready for, and then
  • went to school for an 8:00 a.m. cortisol test

wouldn’t have relatively “elevated morning cortisol” from the resultant stress.

The subjects self-reported depressive symptoms via a 33-item questionnaire initially and again every four months. The subjects were interviewed for psychiatric diagnoses.


The largest separator used for stratification within the subjects was an autobiographic memory test. Without this test, the study wouldn’t have made the main finding, so let’s look at the test’s details:

“Anxious and depressed adolescent patients report significantly elevated levels of over-general categoric memories compared with well controls. Six positive and six negative words are presented on flashcards in pseudorandom order, and participants are instructed to recall a particular memory of an event in their life after each word. Sixty seconds were allowed for each response.

Responses were categorized as specific if they referred to an event with a specific time and place, lasting no longer than 1 d[ay]. Responses were considered overgeneral if they formed a general class of repeated events.”

We can see that the autobiographical memory test only considered the subjects’ verbal expressions – within a short time period – of their recalls of emotionally triggered memories. As informed by the principles described in Agenda-driven research on emotional memories, the recall of an emotional memory is a product of the cerebrum responding to input from limbic system and lower brain areas. When someone describes their recall of an emotionally triggered memory, it’s yet another level further removed from the brain areas that store emotional memories.

We can also see that the test scores of the subjects’ verbal expressions aren’t capable of providing any etiologic evidence for an effect of high cortisol. A correlation is the best that could ever be shown by an autobiographic memory test. Again, the study’s main finding hinged on this third-order observational method of trying to figure out what’s going on in the subjects’ brains.


The researchers developed a control group, and made an insignificant attempt to trace the control group teenagers’ histories:

“The primary caregiver was interviewed about the quality of the family environment in three epochs (0–5, 6–11, and 12–14 y of age).

Four classes were found: optimal class, aberrant parenting, discordant, and hazardous.”

Were we supposed to believe that any primary caregiver would tell the truth about anything in a teenager’s history that indicated they had damaged their child? Good luck with that.

Anyway, the researchers didn’t act as though the teenagers’ histories had any significant relationships with any present or future conditions of the teenagers. The researchers showed their ahistoric biases by subsequently processing the entire history of each of the control group teenagers into a 1 or a 0 for the model.

The researchers then modeled this binary assessment to be relevant to the study’s main subjects!


In my opinion, the researchers’ agenda led to predetermined findings. Was the reviewer onboard with this agenda?

  • By disregarding the study’s main subjects’ histories, the study couldn’t provide etiologic evidence for any present or future effects.
  • By measuring only early morning cortisol, are we surprised that the model’s numbers could be processed into some correlation?
  • Comparing this sole measurement to the 325 measurements taken of the subjects in Assessing a mountain climber’s condition without noticing their empty backpack made me wonder about the study designers’ real intentions.

News coverage of the study jumped on its flimsy finding to demand that something must be done. What did the researchers offer the teenagers who needed help?

  • After citing research that:

    “Showed null effects for two active treatments [cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and attentional training, respectively]”

    they recommended some unspecific:

    “New models of public mental health education and intervention in the youth population.”

  • After citing research that found:

    “Current diagnostic classifications [e.g., the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD)] have proved to have low diagnostic validity for investigations on the etiology, prevention, or treatment of MD [major depression]

    the study relied on these diagnoses anyway, and then disclaimed:

    “It may also be the case that current classifications, as used in this study, such as DSM and ICD are simply not optimally specified.”

In my opinion, the researchers didn’t make their case that the “elevated morning cortisol” effect was an adequate biomarker for teenagers who needed help. The researchers did a disservice to their subjects by neither investigating nor providing any etiologic evidence for the observed effects.

Who really benefited from the underlying agenda? I didn’t see that it was the teenagers who may have actually needed assistance.

Did the study’s funders know that these efforts had enormous lacks? And what did:

“New models of public mental health education and intervention in the youth population”

really mean?

http://www.pnas.org/content/111/9/3638.full “Elevated morning cortisol is a stratified population-level biomarker for major depression in boys only with high depressive symptoms”

One way beliefs produce pleasure and reward in the cerebrum

This 2014 Singapore human study found:

“Differences in belief learning – the degree to which players were able to anticipate and respond to the actions of others, or to imagine what their competitor is thinking and respond strategically – was associated with variation in three genes which primarily affect dopamine functioning in the medial prefrontal cortex.

In contrast, differences in trial-and-error reinforcement learning – how quickly they forget past experiences and how quickly they change strategy – was associated with variation in two genes that primarily affect striatal dopamine.”

One of the researchers said:

“The findings correlate well with previous brain studies showing that the prefrontal cortex is involved in belief learning, while the striatum is involved in reinforcement learning.”

The study didn’t demonstrate cause and effect, however, and the researchers cautioned:

“It would be mistaken to interpret our results as suggesting that dopamine genes function as “belief learning genes.”

The study added to the science of how beliefs act on the pleasure and reward parts of the cerebrum.

http://www.pnas.org/content/111/26/9615.full.pdf “Dissociable contribution of prefrontal and striatal dopaminergic genes to learning in economic games” (the pdf file is linked because the html had errors)

Changing an individual’s future behavior even before they’re born

This 2015 Harvard fruit fly research was a companion of the Is what’s true for a population what’s true for an individual? study.

The researchers began with the question:

“If we could rear genetically identical individuals from a variety of genetic backgrounds and rear them in the same environment, how much phenotypic variation between individuals of the same genotype would we see?”

They answered with:

“We show that different genotypes vary dramatically in their propensity for variability, that phenotypic variability itself, as a trait, can be heritable, and that loci affecting variability can be mapped.”


The specific problem that probably prompted this study was that the methodology of genome-wide association studies usually:

“Focuses on the average effect of alternative alleles averaged in a population.”

What this methodology often missed was:

“When phenotypic variation results from alleles that modify phenotypic variance rather than the mean, this link between genotype and phenotype will not be detected.”


The researchers altered the environment during a critical period of fruit flies’ development in order to induce epigenetic changes in the fruit fly pupae brains:

“Disruption of Ten-a [the synaptic target recognition gene Tenascin accessory] expression in midpupa affects behavioral variance [the standard statistical dispersion parameter].

In all cases, disrupting Ten-a increased the variability [the median of the absolute deviation from each observation’s median] in turning bias with no effect on the mean.”

I fully expect researchers to demonstrate that this finding has general applicability for humans, especially during womb-life. Research such as:

are steps in this direction just for one factor in the human fetus’ environment – stress. I think that the effects of stressing a human fetus should be at least as significant as the effects produced on the study’s subjects with increased temperature during pupation.

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/21/6706.full “Behavioral idiosyncrasy reveals genetic control of phenotypic variability”

Is what’s true for a population what’s true for an individual?

This 2015 Harvard fruit fly study found:

“Genetically identical individuals display variability in their behaviors even when reared in essentially identical environments.

Individual flies exhibit significant bias in their left vs. right locomotor choices during exploratory locomotion.”

Here’s an example of why population statistics didn’t necessarily apply to an individual:

“The probability of turning right..averaged across all individuals within each line was statistically indistinguishable from 50%.

However..an individual fly’s probability of turning right often diverged markedly from the population average. For example, nearly one quarter (23.5%) of CS [Canton-S] flies turned right greater than 70% of the time or less than 30% of the time. This distribution would be unlikely indeed if all flies were choosing to turn right with identical probabilities.”

The researchers noted other species with similar findings:

“Individuals can develop idiosyncratic behaviors, morphology, and gene expression profiles. For example, stochastic DNA methylation may contribute to phenotypic variation that is uncorrelated to genetic variation.”

This study should inform other studies such as the Separating genetic from environmental factors when assessing educational achievement, to the degree its findings apply to humans.


As the findings applied to neurological areas:

“The magnitude of locomotor handedness is under the control of neurons within a brain region implicated in motor planning and execution.”

I was surprised that the study’s news coverage included this opinion:

“They are suggesting that variation [read: individuality] itself might be a genetic trait.”

The researchers stated their case in the companion study Changing an individual’s future behavior even before they’re born.

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/21/6700.full “Neuronal control of locomotor handedness in Drosophila”

Limits of dMRI brain studies

This 2015 macaque study found:

“∼50% of the cortical surface was effectively inaccessible for long-range diffusion tracking.

Current and future high-resolution dMRI [diffusion magnetic resonance imaging] studies of the human brain will need to develop methods to overcome the challenges posed by superficial white matter systems to determine long-range anatomical connections accurately.”

The researchers stated:

“Although in many respects the macaque brain is a good approximation of the human brain, both species have undergone profound evolutionary changes since the time of their most recent common ancestor living more than 20 million years ago, particularly in regard to the massive expansion of the cerebral cortex in the human brain. Thus, it is of great value to assess human anatomical connections directly and comprehensively.”

Sound familiar? That’s also the point I made in Do popular science memes justify researchers’ cruelties to monkeys?

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/21/E2820.full “Superficial white matter fiber systems impede detection of long-range cortical connections in diffusion MR tractography”

An observational instead of experimental study on direction and place recognition

Occasionally a study appears in the Psychological and Cognitive Sciences section of PNAS that isn’t much more than graduate students wasting resources. In my view, this 2015 Pennsylvania rodent study was such an item.

The study’s design was observational, and it couldn’t be used as a reliable source to make statements of fact. Yet the researchers hyped that their:

“Finding has important implications for understanding the cognitive architecture underlying spatial navigation.

A similar cognitive architecture may underlie human navigational behavior.”

No reason was provided for not experimentally exploring the “cognitive architecture underlying spatial navigation.” So the study’s results didn’t advance science concerning grid cells, hippocampal place cells, head direction cells, boundary cells, and cells that encode object locations, in my opinion, as did the research referenced in the Are hippocampal place cells controlled by theta brain waves from grid cells? study.

It seemed to me that one of the researchers recognized this lack when they referred to new research instead of this study in one of the covering news articles. We’ll see what the graduate students do next.

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/20/6503.full “Place recognition and heading retrieval are mediated by dissociable cognitive systems in mice”

The thalamus part of the limbic system has a critical period for connections

This highly-jargoned 2015 UK study found that connections made by the thalamus part of the limbic system of the developing human fetus had a critical period of the last trimester of womb-life. Babies born before the 33rd week of gestation experienced thalamic disconnections compared with normal-term babies and adults. The disconnections increased with a shorter womb-life.

The thalamus of premature babies also developed stronger connections with areas of the face, lips, tongue, jaw, and throat. They presumably needed these connections for survival actions such as breathing and feeding that aren’t a part of the last trimester of womb-life.

The study confirmed that the structures of thalamic connections of normal-term babies were very similar to those of adults. The study added to the research that shows that human limbic systems and lower brains closely approximate their lifelong functionalities at the normal time of birth.


It was difficult to measure the thalamus at this stage of life with current technology, and the researchers had to discard over two-thirds of their results. The researchers recommended monitoring these premature babies for difficulties in later childhood that may be caused by their early-life experiences.

Why would this monitoring recommendation apply to just the study’s subjects? We know from other studies that a main purpose of thalamic connections is to actively control and gate information to and from the cerebrum. Would it make sense for a medical professional to disregard any patient’s birth history if they had problems in their brain’s gating functions or connectivity?


One researcher said:

“The ability of modern science to image the connections in the brain would have been inconceivable just a few years ago, but we are now able to observe brain development in babies as they grow, and this is likely to produce remarkable benefits for medicine.”

This study’s results provided evidence for a principle of Dr. Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy: the bases for disconnection from aspects of oneself are often set down during gestation. The “remarkable benefits for medicine” are more likely to be along the lines of what I describe in my Scientific evidence page.

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/20/6485.full “Specialization and integration of functional thalamocortical connectivity in the human infant”