The Science Behind my Compulsion to Shop – and How to Become a Smarter Spender

Editor’s Note: This summer we have two communications interns working with us to write stories about research at the hospital and their experiences being part of the hospital community. This is a post by our intern Catherine Iannucci, a student at Emerson College .

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My name is Catherine, and I am a compulsive buyer.

As a college student living in Boston, I have a limited budget. Realistically, I know I need money for groceries yet I still insist on buying that weird face spray stuff that’s supposed to make my makeup look better.

But now thanks to a recent article in the Boston Globe Magazine on why humans are driven to over consume,  at least I know why.  And may I just say, “thank goodness,” because I need something to tell my mother when she asks why I have no savings.

The article, “Why is it so hard to stop buying more stuff?” features the insights of Ann-Christine Duhaime, MD, a neurosurgeon at the Mass General Hospital for Children who is investigating the link between our biological makeup and our habits of overconsumption.

Her research has shown that our brains encourage repetitive spending to get a chemical reaction that produces a feeling similar to a “short-term high”. This biological reaction was originally used to encourage us to gather the resources we needed to survive, but now it’s making us hoard a bunch of stuff we don’t need.

According to Dr. Duhaime, “No behavior happens without [the brain’s] complex and amazingly designed reward system weighing in.”

I can see this happening in my shopping decision, as well as those of my friends. My best friend, whose money goes out as fast as it comes in, normally acknowledges out loud, “I really have to start saving money!” even as she hands cash over to a Forever 21 employee who has heard that a million times before and is holding back an eye roll. Even my friend who is a budget master—and probably reads three finance books a month—has difficulty sticking to his pre-planned budget due to spur-of-the-moment purchase decisions.

When we can’t resist this intrinsic motivation to buy more stuff, we create more waste. When we finally run out of room and decide to purge some of the older, but probably still usable, things cluttering up our lives, we are adding to the massive amount of waste that already exists.

Dr. Duhaime proposes a solution that will help to redirect our buying-obsessed brains and help the environment at the same time. Instead of buying new makeup spray or Forever 21 clothes to get that high, we need to retrain our brains to get that same “high” from renovating and repurposing existing possessions to fit current needs. Maybe reupholster an old couch instead of wasting money on a new one, reuse old wood pallets to make a cute DIY bookshelf, or find some other fun project that will trigger the same “reward” system in your brain with a less wasteful outcome.

CatFor me the best course of action is just to go cold turkey on the impulse buys and spend my money only on food and bars of soap.

Of course I’m kidding. We all know that’s wildly unrealistic. But, I am going to start reusing that Dunkin Donuts hot cup that I insist on getting as a koozy for my iced coffee. Plus, I’m pretty sure that makeup spray is a complete hoax anyway, so that will have to go too.

Team Effort Finds First Definitive Answers to Complex Genetic Basis of Tourette Syndrome

A large scale analysis of genetic information from individuals with Tourette syndrome led by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and UCLA has identified alterations in two genes that significantly increase the risk of developing the disorder.

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A team effort between genetic researchers, clinicians, a patient advocacy group and volunteer study participants has revealed new genetic insights into Tourette syndrome—a neuropsychiatric disorder that results in involuntary physical and verbal tics.

The study helps to confirm the theory that Tourette syndrome results from a complex series of genetic changes rather than a single mutated gene. It may also provide comfort for individuals with the disorder, who are often stigmatized for their uncontrollable movements and outbursts.

Jeremiah Scharf quoto

Continue reading “Team Effort Finds First Definitive Answers to Complex Genetic Basis of Tourette Syndrome”

Research Awards and Honors: July 2017

Massachusetts General Hospital’s talented and dedicated researchers are working to push the boundaries of science and medicine every day. In this series we highlight a few individuals who have recently received awards or honors for their achievements:

brownDennis Brown, PhD, Director of the MGH Program in Membrane Biology, assumed the presidency of the American Physiological Society (APS) in April, immediately following the APS annual meeting at Experimental Biology 2017. As one of his presidential goals, Brown underscored the need to reach out to life scientists who may not consider themselves physiologists and welcome them under the APS umbrella.

“My lab focuses on how the kidney responds to signals in the body to maintain water and acid/base balance. Specialized cells detect when there is too much or too little water in the body, and they adjust the amount of urine we produce to keep our fluid level constant. Sometimes this goes wrong, and we end up with too much (hypertension) or too little fluid (dehydration). Similarly, the kidney helps keep blood pH within a normal viable range. When this fails, the blood becomes too acidic, resulting in problems ranging from kidney stones to defective bone formation, and even death. We are using drug discovery approaches to understand and find treatments for these conditions. This work depends on continuing support from federal agencies. Part of my mission as President of the APS is to lobby for increased NIH funding. Our future depends on attracting the best and brightest minds into research labs, and I am looking forward to being a part of this process.”



Kim Francis, PhD, PHCNS-BC, neonatal clinical nurse specialist, has received the inaugural Jeanette Ives Erickson Nursing Research Award, a new honor for nurse researchers sponsored by the MGH Research Institute. The award will be presented annually to a mid-career, doctorally prepared nurse researcher with a passion for scientific inquiry. (Pictured from left, Maurizio Fava, MD, director of the Division of Clinical Research; Susan A. Slaugenhaupt, PhD, scientific director of the Research Institute; Francis; and Jeanette Ives Erickson, RN, DNP, NEA-BC, FAAN, former chief nurse and senior vice president of Patient Care Services)

“I was thrilled to learn I received the inaugural Jeanette Ives Erickson Nursing Research Award. What an honor to be the first recipient. I am extremely grateful to work in an institution that supports nursing research. The support received from this award will go towards learning more about how to recognize pain behaviors for preterm infants.

Recognizing pain for preterm infants remains an area where more information is needed. There are many reasons that make it difficult to decide if a preterm infant is in pain. These reasons include: being born too early, a lack of pain assessment tools and understanding of the pain response. Currently, I am investigating the use of Infrared thermography with preterm infants to find out if this method can be used as a new, low cost, noninvasive approach that can identify pain from skin temperature changes for this at risk population.”


khera.jpgAmit V. Khera, MD, of MGH Cardiology and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, has been named the inaugural recipient of the Clinical Science Research award by The National Lipid Association. Khera’s winning proposal, “Determinants of LDL Cholesterol and Coronary Artery Disease Among Individuals with a Familial Hypercholesterolemia (FH) Mutation,” builds on his previous work noting substantial variability among carriers of FH mutations in both LDL cholesterol and heart attack risk. He will specifically aim to characterize the genetic and non-genetic determinants of observed LDL cholesterol levels and assess the genetic, lifestyle and biomarker risk factors for myocardial infarction among those with a FH mutation. The work will inform ongoing efforts to screen the population for such mutations and clinical counseling for patients who inherit such a mutation.

“My work seeks to build an evidence base for ‘genomic medicine’ – the use of human genetics to understand differences in risk for cardiovascular disease, risk factors, and response to medicines.

I am extremely honored to receive this inaugural award from the National Lipid Association, a group that has led the field in both research and clinical management for targeting cholesterol to improve human health. This grant will provide critical support at an early phase in my career.”


mullenAlan Mullen, MD, PhD, of the Gastrointestinal Unit, has been selected as Pew scholar in the biomedical sciences. He is one of 22 exceptional early-career researchers to be selected by The Pew Charitable Trust to pursue foundational research. Mullen’s lab will investigate the role that regulatory RNAs play in chronic liver failure. Using state-of-the-art techniques in genetics, genomics and physiology, he will determine which lncRNAs regulate the production of scar tissue in humans and mice, and whether inhibiting their action can prevent fibrosis – work that could lead to novel treatment to prevent liver failure.

“Most of the genes that are studied in any cell type encode RNAs that provide blueprints for production of proteins. However, recent discoveries have identified many RNAs that do not encode proteins, and we are just beginning to understand how these noncoding RNAs work. I am a clinician who takes care of patients with liver disease, and we are working to understand how a type of noncoding RNA called long noncoding RNA regulates the development of liver fibrosis, which leads to cirrhosis and liver failure. We have identified specific long noncoding RNAs that are expressed in the main cell type responsible for liver fibrosis.

I am very excited to have been named a Pew Scholar. The support from the Pew Charitable Trust will allow us to understand how these noncoding RNAs function and how we can modulate their expression to develop new treatments for liver fibrosis.”


schwabJoseph H. Schwab, MD, Orthopaedic spine surgeon and Orthopaedic Oncology surgeon, has received the CORR ORS Richard A. Brand Award for Outstanding Research from the Association of Bone and Joint Surgeons and the Orthopaedic Research Society for his paper “Immune Surveillance Plays a Role in Locally Aggressive Giant Cell Lesions of Bone.” The annual award is given to recognize the quality and scientific merit of an original paper focusing on a topic of clinical relevance.

“The work was a collaborative effort between myself and Mass General’s Dr. Soldano Ferrone from the Monoclonal Antibody and Immunotherapy Laboratory and Dr. Leonard Kaban and Dr. Zachary Peacock from the department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. Our work focused on the role of immune escape mechanisms in the pathophysiology of giant cell lesions of bone. The data presented in this paper provides important insights into the role of the immune system in giant cell lesions and will serve to guide future treatment strategies.

I was honored to receive this award. My collaborators and I are very excited about the future of immunotherapy for musculoskeletal cancer and it has been great to be recognized for our efforts.”

Potentially Dangerous Pregnancy Complication Leads to Significant Health and Cost Burdens for Mothers and Their Babies

What should be a joyous and exciting time for soon-to-be parents can sometimes take a turn for the worse if the mother develops a blood-pressure related condition called preeclampsia. Globally, preeclampsia and other related disorders of pregnancy are a leading cause of maternal and infant illness and death.

Because little is known about the extent of the health and cost burden of preeclampsia in the United States, a team of researchers including senior investigator Anupam B. Jena, MD, PhD, a physician in the Department of Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, sought to quantify preeclampsia’s impact.

The study, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, found that preeclampsia results in billions of additional healthcare costs and can increase the short- and long-term health risks for mother and baby, underscoring the need to do more to understand the disorder and prevent it from occurring.

Anupam Jena quoto

Here are five things to know:

    1. 1. Preeclampsia is a condition that only occurs during pregnancy and postpartum and can lead to serious, even fatal, complications for both the mother and the unborn baby. It is characterized by high blood pressure and usually begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy (in the late 2nd or 3rd trimesters) and up to six weeks after delivery. Symptoms include protein in the urine, swelling, sudden weight gain, and headaches; however, some women with rapidly advancing disease report few symptoms. Preeclampsia can’t be reversed and currently, the only “cure” for preeclampsia is delivery of the baby.
    1. 2. Driven in part by older maternal age and greater obesity, rates of preeclampsia are rising rapidly. Since 1980, cases have increased steadily from 2.4% to about 5% today. “From an epidemiologic perspective, preeclampsia is growing at a rate more rapid than diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, and chronic kidney disease — diseases for which substantial research and treatment funding have been allocated,” says Jena. Although preeclampsia has affected pregnant women for many years, the true cause remains unknown.
    1. 3. Women affected by preeclampsia are at an increased long-term risk for cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attacks and hypertension, and liver or kidney failure in the years and decades after delivery. When preeclampsia causes the blood vessels to constrict and reduce blood flow to vital organs including the uterus, it can also cause short- and long-term health complications for the baby including low birth weight, and cerebral palsy, epilepsy, blindness and deafness later in life. In addition, the baby may suffer the effects of prematurity if delivered early.
    1. 4. Taking into account the level of care needed to treat mothers and babies affected by the condition, Jena and the research team calculated that the cost of preeclampsia within the first 12 months after birth is $2.18 billion in the United States ($1.03 billion for mothers and $1.15 billion for infants). Considering the short- and long-term health risks associated with preeclampsia for both the mother and the baby, this number is only a mere minimum estimate of the total economic and health burden imposed by the condition.
    1. 5. “This new research underscores the urgent need to continue research into its causes and to implement strategies that may help women manage this condition,” commented William Callaghan, MD, chief of Maternal and Infant Health Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Check out this video to learn more about Dr. Jena’s research:

Friday Read: How to Tell Nutrition Research Fact From Fiction in the News

If you’re confused whether coconut oil is good or bad for you or whether alcohol will lengthen or shorten your life, you’re not alone. With so many nutrition studies receiving coverage in the news, it’s often difficult to discern truth from hyperbole.

A great article published today in the Washington Post discusses how we shouldn’t make generalizations based on the results from many nutrition science studies. The author explained it nicely when she said:

“The coffee studies in the news last week were what scientists know as observational studies. In these studies, researchers followed coffee drinkers and non-coffee drinkers and monitored when and how they died. The problem is, when you go about searching for differences between any two groups, you’re going to find them. ‘That doesn’t prove that coffee is providing the benefit,’ said David Ludwig, professor of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. For example, people who drink coffee regularly might have higher incomes, drink fewer sugary beverages, or lead more active lifestyles. Observational studies like these are useful for identifying interesting trends, but they do not demonstrate cause and effect.”

Nutrition is a particularly difficult topic for the media to cover. One nutrition study on its own likely won’t provide newsworthy, headline-grabbing content. “Truth can only emerge from many different studies with many different methods,” said Ludwig.

So how can you determine whether or not to believe a news story? Among other suggestions, the author warns to be wary of claims that cutting any given food from our diets will cure us. They sound too good to be true because they are.

To learn how to become a better interpreter of nutrition science in the news, read the full article from the Washington Post here.

Both Patients and Researchers Have a Role to Play in Preserving Brain Function

Reposted from the Mass General Giving Website

green-braintreeBrain health is key to living a long and happy life.

Too many Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s and other brain conditions that rob them of their memories, their independence and their lives. In fact, 1 of every 3 seniors dies due to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Here are some tips for improving brain health:

First, exercise is essential.

Promoting blood flow to the brain is vitally important, so exercise is a key part of maintaining brain health. Keeping your heart pumping provides the vital oxygen your brain requires to stay active.

Second, be social.

Those who have social networks maintain healthier brains than those who are isolated. So, visit with your friends, family and neighbors. Seek out social occasions and fight back against isolation.

Third, maintain a healthy balance.

Focus upon a diet that is high in fiber and fruit, be sure to get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night, and avoid stress as much as possible.

An active brain is more likely to stay a healthy brain. You must constantly challenge your brain.

Fourth, use it or lose it.

An active brain is more likely to stay a healthy brain. You must constantly challenge your brain. Puzzles alone are not enough. Learn new things. Constantly educate your mind, because learning results in positive, physical changes in our brain.


Mass General created the Institute for Brain Health to integrate our research into Alzheimer’s, strokes, Parkinson’s, ALS and other brain-related diseases and conditions that affect too many Americans. The doctors and staff are working to develop new treatments to preserve brain function and prevent these diseases.

The Institute’s co-founder Jonathan Rosand, MD, MSc, chief of the Division of Neurocritical Care and Emergency Neurology, has led groundbreaking research into preventing brain disease, and Bradford Dickerson, MD, director of Clinical Applications, is studying older adults who have maintained the resilient minds of younger people.

While our researchers do their job to fight brain diseases, please do your part to protect your brain by keeping it active. Check out our Brain Health Quiz, learn something new and keep your brain healthy today.

Studying the Many Impacts of Water Imbalance in the Body

Imagine a river bringing water to a village or town. What if there was a sudden rainstorm or drought? How would that impact the river’s flow, and the people and habitats that depend on this system?

Just as an ecosystem relies on a river for life, so does the body rely on proper water transport through its cells in order to function. Whether there is too much or too little water being transported or if it is not getting to the right places, it is incredible how much our health can be affected by issues with water transport.

Dennis Brown, PhD
Dennis Brown, PhD

Dennis Brown, PhD, Director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Program in Membrane Biology, has spent much of his research career looking at the body as a system of water transportation. His research began with studying water balance in the kidneys due to their critical role in regulating body water content. Over the years, his areas of investigation have spread to other systems in the body as well to address water imbalance’s many impacts and resulting health complications.

Throughout his basic and translational research pursuits, Brown’s continual goal has been to generate treatments for life-threatening water balance disorders. Continue reading “Studying the Many Impacts of Water Imbalance in the Body”

Artificial Intelligence Makes Waves in Healthcare

There’s so much more to artificial intelligence (AI) than what you’ve seen in sci-fi movies. In fact, advancements in machine learning could provide new opportunities for medical research and diagnosis.

Keith J. Dreyer, DO, PhD, Vice Chairman of Radiology and Executive Director of the MGH & BWH Center for Clinical Data Science, says AI and machine learning has the potential to impact health care as profoundly as the discovery of the microscope.

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Here are five things to know from a recent interview with Dreyer:

  1. AI is created through a process called machine learning. Unlike traditional computer programming where the process of moving from point A to point B is entirely mapped out by the programming team before being loaded onto the computer, in machine learning the computer is given a vast repository of data and told what the data indicates. The computer then has to identify the underlying logic that connects the data to the results. In creating this algorithm, it can predict answers when given new data in the future.
  2. Although the concept of using machines to create AI has been around for more than 50 years, faster computation speeds and more accurate algorithms are now enticing health care companies to invest in AI.
  3. Researchers have trained computers to develop algorithms that distinguish between millions of simple images such as dogs, cat, and beaches. For example, researchers will show a computer many different images of dogs and tell the computer, “these are dogs.” The computer will then have to develop an algorithm that can be used to identify dogs from a new set of images that includes dogs, cats, horses or anything at all.
  4. Now researchers are asking computers to apply that same knowledge to look at millions of MRI, CT, and X-ray images to detect things such as lung cancer, breast cancer or a hemorrhagic stroke. A computer could be shown millions of mammogram images from patients who subsequently developed a certain type of breast cancer. The goal would be to see if there is an underlying pattern that could lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment.
  5. Mass General is poised to be a leader in the field of AI. The hospital has incredibly large amounts of electronic data that can be used to develop new algorithms for screening and diagnosis. Mass General also has a vast community of clinicians and researchers who can work together to develop these tools and integrate them into the delivery of care.

You can read the full interview here.

Grant Program Encourages Innovation and Creativity Among Nurses and Staff

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Recipients of one of the two 2016 IDEA grants – (from left) Jeanette Livelo, Dominic Breuer, Paul Currier, and Lillian Ananian

What does a device that helps to keep patients stable when using the bathroom have in common with a chart that tracks the days since the last infection in the intensive care unit?

These projects were the first recipients of the Innovation Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) at Massachusetts General Hospital last year.

The IDEA grant program was established in 2016 as a way to foster innovative ideas that improve the way care is delivered for patients and families. The program was such a success in its first year that a new call for proposals will open next month.

IDEA grants provide opportunities for nurses and other health professionals in Nursing & Patient Care Services (NPCS) to think creatively about issues they encounter on a daily basis, and how the workarounds they utilize could be applied in a larger context. Jeanette Ives Erickson, RN, DNP, NEA-BC, FAAN, Chief Nurse and Senior Vice President for Patient Care, spearheaded  development of the program with generous funding from Norman Knight and Kathleen and Ralph Verni.

The first call for IDEA grant proposals went out in August 2016. In its inaugural year, the program received 22 applications and awarded two grants of up to $5,000.   Successful proposals must include measurable outcomes and have a high likelihood of making a significant, sustainable difference in practice, either now or in the future.

Gaurdia Banister, RN, PhD, NEA-BC, FAAN, Executive Director, The Institute for Patient Care & Marianne Ditomassi, RN, DNP, MBA, NEA-BC, Director of the Yvonne L. Munn Center for Nursing Research and Executive Director of Patient Care Services co-chaired the IDEA Steering Committee, which made final recommendations for award selection and worked to develop this new program.

Idea grant---Jared Jordan
Jared Jordan

The first award went to neuroscience staff nurse Jared Jordan, RN, for his idea for a specialized device that assists patients using the bathroom. Recognizing that falls were a big safety hazard among patients, he came up with the concept for a harness that would stabilize a patient while toileting. With support from the IDEA award, Jordan is developing a prototype of the device.

The second award went to the team of Lillian Ananian, RN, Jeanette Livelo, RN, Paul Currier, MD, and Dominic Breuer in the Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU).

To address the issue of higher than average rates of central line-associated bloodstream infections (CLABSI) in the MICU, the team implemented a CLABSI flipchart. They drew inspiration from flipcharts typically used in industrial engineering to measure metrics such as the number of days since the last defect in the product line.

Implemented in a medical setting, the CLABSI flipchart visually measures the number of days since the last infection. Grant funding was used to evaluate how implementing the flipchart impacted the unit’s staff culture and patient care.

The call for applications for the 2018 IDEA Grant program is now open. All employees working in Nursing and Patient Care Services are invited to submit proposals containing innovative id

You can find the application online here:

Any questions can be directed to Mary Ellin Smith, RN, at

Could a Technique Echoing an Ancient Greek Military Strategy Point the Way to More Effective Cancer Treatments?

Trojan horse

According to Greek legend, the Trojan horse was a wooden structure built by Greek soldiers and presented to the Trojans as a gift after a long and fruitless siege of the city during the Trojan War. When the Trojans brought the gift horse within their city walls, the Greek soldiers who were hidden inside crept out under the cover of night and launched a deadly surprise attack. Historians continue to debate how much of the tale is based in fact and how much in myth.

At Massachusetts General Hospital, a real-life Trojan horse scenario that takes place on the nanoscale level could provide a way to sneak cancer drugs into fortified tumor cells so the drugs can attack from within.

Here are five things to know about a new study from the Mass General Center for Systems Biology:

    1. 1. Think of nanoparticles as the Trojan horses of cancer therapy. These tiny molecules (typically between 20 and 100 nanometers in size) are increasingly being used to transport drugs to a specific target in the body. The ability that researchers have to easily change the size and surface characteristics of the nanoparticles and control the time and location of the drug’s release makes them ideal for drug delivery systems.
    1. 2. Nanoparticles are small enough to carry the drugs (the Greek soldiers) through the body and can protect the encapsulated drug from toxic substances in the bloodstream that are used in infusion chemotherapy. However, in clinical practice, getting these nanoencapsulated drugs into patients’ tumors has been challenging—tumor blood vessels are difficult to break through, which limits the passage of any drugs from the bloodstream into tumor cells. Although it’s usually beneficial for blood vessels to maintain barrier function, their tough exteriors are a disadvantage in cancer therapies.
    1. 3. A 2015 study by Miles Miller, PhD, of the Center for Systems Biology, and his colleagues showed that tumor-associated macrophages — immune cells found around tumors that are in charge of engulfing pathogens, foreign materials and dead cells — can improve delivery of nanoparticle-based therapies to tumor cells. They also found that radiation therapy made it easier for substances to pass through tumor blood vessels. But exactly how these effects are produced and how they could be combined to enhance nanomedicine delivery was not known. Answering those questions was the goal of the current study.
    1. 4. Miller and his team found that macrophages can be prompted to act like Trojans, helping to bring the drugs inside the tumor, if the tumors are treated with radiation prior to administering the drugs. In the same way that a siege weakens the resistance of a city, the radiation weakens the blood vessels within the tumor. It also increases the number of macrophages attracted to tumor blood vessels which, in turn, pick up the drug-laden nanoparticles and bring them into the tumor. The sudden influx of macrophages into the weakened walls of the blood vessels causes many of the vessels to burst, thus flooding the tumor cells with the drug-laden nanoparticles and improving drug delivery by 600 percent.
    1. 5. “Finding that this combination of radiation and nanomedicine leads to synergistic tumor eradication in the laboratory provides motivation for clinical trials that combine tumor rewiring using radiation therapy with nanomedicine,” says Miller, who was lead author of the study. “Most of the treatments and nanomedicines employed in this study are FDA approved for cancer treatment, so this combination treatment strategy could be tested in clinical trials relatively quickly.”


    Radiation & Macrophages

  1. Ralph Weissleder, MD, PhD, Director of the MGH Center for Systems Biology is senior author of the Science Translational Medicine paper.