Brain Chemistry May Spur Unhealthy Behaviors

Serotonin levels might explain why some people smoke, eat poorly, researchers say

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FRIDAY, March 3, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Could sluggish brain chemicals cause people to make the poor lifestyle choices that boost their risk for heart disease?

That's the question raised by a new study that looks at links between neurochemistry and human behavior.

Research conducted at the University of Pittsburgh suggests that an underactive brain serotonin system may help drive people to smoke, eat poorly and stay sedentary -- all behaviors that lead to early hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis).

Serotonin, a chemical that carries messages between neurons in the brain, is believed to play an important role in regulating mood, appetite and blood pressure. This is the first study to suggest an association between the serotonin system and atherosclerosis. The findings could lead to new approaches for preventing heart disease and stroke, the researchers said.

"Many of the known risk factors for heart disease and stroke -- high blood pressure and cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, smoking and lack of exercise -- can, to some extent, be controlled by our lifestyle choices," Dr. Matthew F. Muldoon, an associate professor of medicine, said in a prepared statement.

"Until now, no one had studied the possibility that brain abnormalities could explain why some people make these poor lifestyle choices and have multiple risk factors for heart disease,'" he said.

Muldoon and his colleagues studied 244 people, aged 30 to 55, and found that those with low levels of serotonin system activity were more likely to have thickening of the carotid artery than those with higher levels of serotonin activity.

The findings were presented Friday at the American Psychosomatic Society meeting, in Denver.

"If, through further studies, we can establish that risk factors for heart disease and stroke are, in part, controlled by the serotonin systems in the brain, it could open a whole new avenue for preventing heart disease and stroke," Muldoon said.

In previous research, he and his colleagues found that people who are overweight, get little exercise, have high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol had low serotonin activity levels.

More information

The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has more about atherosclerosis.

SOURCE: University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, news release, March 3, 2006

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