The Neurology of Where Habits Come From

We are living through a huge evolution in our understanding of habits. 

The Neurology of Where Habits Come From

I first got interested in habits about a decade ago when I was a reporter in Iraq.  I had gone to Iraq as a reporter for the LA Times and I worked for the New York Times and thought that being in battlefields would be super cool and it turns out that being in battlefields is actually terrifying. 


So I was looking for stories that I could write that would not put me into places where people could shoot at me.  

I heard about this Army Major down in a city named Kufa, which is about an hour south of Baghdad.  And I flew down to meet him.  He had stopped riots from happening by taking kabob sellers out of the plazas.  And I thought this was totally fascinating. What would happen is people would get hungry, the crowds would develop and there were no kabob sellers there, so they’d all go home and the riot would never happen. 

And I asked him how he knew this because the riots had been a problem in Kufa for a year.  And he said that the military is like this giant habit formation experiment.  Everyone learns how to work in the military by learning how to manipulate their own habits and other people’s habits.  

That got me super interested.  So when I got back to the U.S., I wanted to learn about habit formation and I wanted to learn how to change my habits. I wanted to lose weight and I wanted to be able to exercise easier. I felt like I was a successful person and yet I was powerless over changing these patterns in my life. 

And so, the more I researched it, the more people told me, this is really a neurology issue and a neurobiology problem.  And the more I did research the more I learned that we are living through a huge evolution in our understanding of habits.  And it’s being driven primarily by understanding the neurology of where habits come from. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

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If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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