You know, I've never been able to resist taking cheap shots at Tom Cruise. And I'm not going to display any more self control in this week's column. However, I'm beginning to think I might owe Tom something of an apology.
Not because I was unsurprised when research firm Genius Insight tracked Cruise's popularity as having plummeted from 11th most-liked to being lumped in the top five "love em or loathe em" celebrities with Pauly Shore. (I mean, seriously -- talk about separated at birth. To this day, the only way I can tell Bio-Dome from Top Gun is that one has airplanes in it.)
No, I have to back down off Tom on the topic of psychiatry. I was one of the people who mocked him when he criticized Brooke Shields and Matt Lauer for believing that psychiatry is a fairly valid science. But watching the health news headlines the last couple of weeks makes me wonder if Cruise didn't have more of a point than I gave him credit for.
Take this one: "Marijuana found to promote the growth of brain cells."
Yeah. The Psych Department at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada came up with that. If this was actually true, some of the potheads I went to school with should have generated enough brain cells to grow an entire second head by now, yet most of them could barely make a sandwich, let alone the honor roll.
Still, before I start a rush of stressed out college prep students hurrying to toke up before they take the SATs, the doctors in the article pointed out that they were using a super-potent, manmade version of one very specific cannabinoid compound, HU210. (I presume they meant they were using the compound on rats, not taking it themselves.) Just smoking pot wouldn't produce the same effect, and they're not even sure it works on humans. Still, when lab rats were injected with HU210 not only did they grow new brain cells, but they seemed to be less anxious or depressed.
What does this tell us? That Canadian tax dollars are being spent to get rats stoned. (Before you hard-livin folk out there snicker and say, "Lucky rats," I would like to point out that the article very specifically said "autopsies revealed". Also, Canadian-bound college students might want to stay drug free -- curiosity can be a powerful motivator, and while there's been no wave of missing stoners yet, why risk being the first brain in the specimen jar?)
The growth appeared to be only in one region of the brain -- the hippocampus, an area responsible for personal memories, direction sense, and navigation. Researchers think HU210 has potential uses either as an antidepressant or as a catalyst for creating a breed of mutant super-cabbies, possessing an uncanny knack for knowing the shortest route to any destination and so mellow they're immune to road rage.
And while part of the psychiatric industry is obsessed with trying to prove cannabis can be good for you, more health news reports say the other part is handing out prescriptions left and right for the next big illegal drug of choice. Pot is passe, Mom and Dad. Generation Y is much savvier about what kinds of drugs they abuse, and they're getting big into Ritalin and Adderall.
The jaded generation that made ADHD an epidemic has discovered that their prescriptions seem like a quick fix for non-ADHD students hoping to focus on that term paper. (Public service announcement: Ritalin is a stimulant. To be safe, it has to enter the body in slow, steady, regular doses, under a doctor's supervision -- and you have to have a neurological disorder like ADHD. "Jolting" a normal nervous system with occasional Ritalin use creates an effect like cocaine, producing a fake sense of superiority, increasing risk for stroke, heart attack or death, and -- unlike when taken in the prescribed manner -- creating addiction.)
Back in my day, we had a simple menu of booze, uppers and downers. But Gen Y has an entire portfolio of pharmaceuticals for a chemically enhanced lifestyle. The co-ed of today doesn't need a pill organizer that goes by the days of the week, but a pill planner that breaks it down by hours of the day: vitamins, pep pills, mood pills, weight pills, study pills, party pills, birth control pills, sleeping pills, omigawd-Tom-Cruise-almost-has-a-point pills.
If only they made a pill that enhanced common sense.
Comments and lab reports to Alex.Queen@gmail.com.
This article first appeared in the Nov 13, 2005 Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.