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My Unfunny Valentine: The Truth About Online Dating; and The Myelin Repair Foundation--A New Model For Outcome-Oriented Biomedical Research

In this episode, Scientific American Mind contributing editor Robert Epstein talks about the pitfalls and potential of online dating. And Myelin Repair Foundation founder Scott Johnson talks about how the foundation is accelerating the search for multiple sclerosis therapies, as well as serving as a model for a new kind of biomedical research approach. Plus we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include www.sciam.com; www.sciammind.com; www.myelinrepair.org

Science Talk February 14, 2007 -- My Unfunny Valentine: the Truth About Online Dating; and the Myelin Repair Foundation—A New Model For Outcome-Oriented Biomedical Research

Welcome to the Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting February 14th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, we will celebrate Valentine's Day by bringing you the bad and good news about the online dating scene with psychologist Robert Epstein and Scott Johnson will tell us about his Myelin Repair Foundation and how it's a model for a new kind of outcome-oriented biomedical research. First up, Robert Epstein. He is a visiting scholar at the University of California, San Diego. He is also a contributing editor for Scientific American Mind magazine and the host of his own show on Sirius satellite radio called Psyched!. He is the author of the article "The Truth About Online Dating" in the current Scientific American Mind. To find out more, I called him at his home in San Diego.

Steve: Hi Dr. Epstein, how are you today?

Epstein: Good Steve. How are you?

Steve: I am okay! So, tell me about online dating. How did you get so interested in this subject, first of all?

Epstein: Well, probably because I was doing some online dating. That made me very curious. Then I learned that there were researchers—people like me—doing legitimate research on online dating. People at MIT and Boston University, and other good places, and they were trying to understand it scientifically, mainly using surveys, but using other techniques as well.

Steve: Okay! Let's talk about that a little bit. First of all, do we know how many people are engaged in online dating in this country?

Epstein: We don't know exactly. If you take the numbers that are released by the big online dating companies, of course, you are going to get a highly inflated figure that would suggest 50 or 60 million or more. If you use some survey data done by some independent organizations, the number come down; but it's at least in the tens of millions for sure and the numbers are growing fast.

Steve: So, let's talk about some of the things in the article. First of all, the lack of complete honesty on the part of people advertising themselves online.

Epstein: Yes! Well, some form of deception is probably part of courting, not just for humans, but for other mammalian species as well. So, some point of deception or exaggeration might just be what you need to do in courting. But online, you see, it takes it to a whole new level, because the online world is of course virtual, meaning you can do or say anything—you can be anyone, and people quickly discover that when they are trying to do some online courting and unfortunately it gets way out of hand and people have investigated this a number of different ways so far; and I did my own bit of research, collected some new data for this article, and it is pretty frightening actually because the deception can get crazy.

Steve: Talk about the age discrepancies that you found.

Epstein: I collected some information from match.com, which is one of the biggest services. All I did is so simple. I just took down ages of a 1,000 men, the ages of a 1,000 women, and plotted them on a histogram to see what I got and in fact, if the people were being honest, , [what] you would get is pretty much as smooth line for both males and females. That's not what I found. For males, I found a couple of spikes at certain ages, like age 36. If you get a spike and then a dip, that suggests that more men are calling themselves 36, [but] they are not really 36. For women, I got three huge spikes. One was at age 29—which makes sense because, you see, that in our society, is a socially acceptable age—and then a big dip after that. Another at age 35, which again, I guessed for women as [is a] socially acceptable age. If you are older than 35, you call yourself 35—well that's not so bad. And then there was a third one and a smaller one at age 44. These dips, some of them were—I should say these spikes followed by the dips—those were about nine times as large as you would expect by chance. So, there's no question that there is lot of deception going on the age issue and many other issues as well.

Steve: Yeah! Some of the other studies have looked at the height and weight. You want to talk about that a little bit?

Epstein: Well sure. In fact men lie about certain things that women don't care much about for themselves; i.e., men lie about some things, women lie about others. Men lie about—for example—educational level and income; because again, in our society, it's important that you be educated and have [high] incomes to attract a female. Women tend to lie a little bit about weight, where men a little less so. So, pretty much everything you can think of—in fact one study suggests that about 90 percent of the people online lie about something—that's a big number. In the real world, you can lie about whether—for example—about whether you are in a marriage and some people do that. Men do that certainly online—possibly 10 percent, maybe even 20 percent of men who say they are single online or[are] actually married. You can lie if you meet someone in a bar, you can lie about certain things—what’s your job is and how much money you make and so on—but online allows total virtual construction of a new person; that's very different.

Steve: Right! In person I can't lie about my height.

Epstein: There are certain things you cannot lie about. You can't lie about your race, your height, your weight. But, you know, online you can—it's more than lying. You know, it's exciting in a way, because you can become a different person—and one thing I didn't mention in the article is that right now online there are a lot of women who are not real at all. They are not real at all in the sense that there are companies in Nigeria—and this has been well documented—there are companies in Nigeria that employ people that fill up small office buildings there that simply create virtual women and they then prey upon men, mainly in America—to some extent in Europe as well—and they over time build up an email relationship and then try to get these men to send them money.

Steve: Wow! Fascinating. You talk in the article about scientific testing realities and how important they are in trying to figure out what online dating really is and whether or not it works. So, you have to have reliable testing and you have to actually be sure that you are measuring what you think you are measuring; [those] are the two points that you raise. So, how does online dating stack up on those fronts?

Epstein: Well, this is an area which unfortunately is very disturbing right now because some of the big companies out there are making money by saying hey, we have a test—we have a test that will allow us to find not just someone you have found, but that will allow us to find your soul mate. One of the biggest companies out there—actually that's what they thrive on. That's how they make their money: promising that they can do that with a test.

Steve: Right! We have all seen the thousands of commercials for what you're talking about.

Epstein: Yeah! Because that company got an infusion of about a 100 million dollars in new investment money not long ago and that's why you see so many ads. Well, the reality is—and this has been confirmed by some of the top people in the field of psychology—the reality is no one knows how to do that with a test. No one knows how to give you a test and then use that test to find someone who you will get along with; and certainly no one knows how to find your soul mate with sort of a psychological test. All they are doing probably, as far as we can tell, is trying to set you up with people who have similar scores on the test; but you know that doesn't really work in the real world. First of all, you don't know if when you meet them you're going to have any kind of attraction or chemistry, [if] you're going to feel safe or comfortable. The test tells you nothing about that—and that's absolutely critical. Also, you know, in the real world we often are attracted to people who are not like us. You know, you hear that all the time—opposites attract. Well that's an oversimplification, but the fact is, a test in which you match people up according to similar scores is bound to fail. And this brings—lead[s] to—what is called the false negative problem., which In the world of dating, that's a serious problem that means that you're going to make mistakes every now and then by saying this person is not right for you. That's a false negative; and you're never even going to show the person that possible mate because of, you know, a score that person got on the test. You met, probably, a false negative.

Steve: There is a section in the article where you talk about this kind of new world of virtual dating that the MIT Media Lab is at the forefront of. What's that all about, and why do you think it might be superior to just the questionnaire-type online dating?

Epstein: Well, to me, the bottom line in my research I did on this topic is that what we have now in online dating is fairly primitive, but that there's some cool things happening. One is—as I mentioned—this virtual dating possibility. This has been explored a little bit now with some software-developing IT people at MIT's media labs. In this kind of scenario, you can actually go online with your potential mate and go somewhere together if you are on a date. Now, they did [it] in such an incredibly primitive way that it's hardly even worth mentioning. But the point is that this kind of possibility is being developed, so at some point you will be able to have, you know, something like a real date with someone, but do it virtually, which means the safety issue is taken care of and you'll find out how you interact with someone in some semi-real setting or even a real setting; maybe you can go to some exotic place, maybe you can even go to the Champs-Elyséesin Paris or maybe you can go down to the local fast-food joint with them, but do it virtually and interact with them. And the other thing that is kind of exciting now is—and it's beginning to happen—is using a community approach for online dating. Right now, if you sign up with the eHarmony or match.com or any of the other big services, you're alone—you're completely alone. It's like being at a huge bar, but going without your guy friends or your girl friends—you're really alone. But in the real world, the community is very helpful in trying to determine whether someone is right for you, and some of the new services allow you to go online with friends and family and have, you know, your best friend with you searching for potential partners, checking people out. So, that's the new community approach to online dating. So, if you take the possibility of virtual online dating and community online dating and you start to make these things add up online, it does start to get exciting. And these things are happening—they are happening now, they are being developed.

Steve: So, you have the online equivalent of when Michael Corleone takes that women in Italy out for a walk followed by the entire family stretching out for a quarter of a mile behind them.

Epstein: (Laughs)Well, that would be an extreme case, but for sure, it does help to have the community with you; and in the real world you see—even when we start dating someone—there are people checking that person out or sometimes, you know, we get fixed up. The community is important. It gives you a big reality check. Being completely alone—especially in the world of online dating where there is so much deception—not a good way to proceed.

Steve: And let's tell everybody you actually have a relationship with one of these community dating sites, right?

Epstein: I did a little consulting for one of these companies—called engage.com—that is developing the community-type approach. There are other companies as well that are doing this and I am pretty sure it's going to be one of the important areas in which this online dating moves in the future.

Steve: Robert Epstein, very interesting stuff. Thanks very much.

Epstein: Absolutely Steve. Thank you.

Steve: Robert Epstein's article on online dating is available free at the Scientific American Mind Web site—that's www.sciammind.com.

Now it's time to play TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories. Only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Midday naps make you more susceptible to heart attacks.

Story number 2: The evolution creation[ism] is in battle has officially matured to the point where there is now a journal devoted solely to defending evolution in the classroom.

Story number 3: Believing that your physical activity is exercise can actually make it more beneficial.

Story number 4: Researchers have found evidence that West African chimpanzees used stone tools to crack nuts 4,300 years ago.

We will be back with the answer, but first—Scott Johnson is a businessman who thought that a focused, outcome-oriented approach to medical research might bring about some help for his own multiple sclerosis. To that end, he established the Myelin Repair Foundation. Scientific American named him one of the top 50 research technology and policy leaders in December for that effort and I recently called him at his office in Saratoga, California.

Steve: Mr. Johnson, good to talk to you today.

Johnson: Well, thank you very much. It's great to talk to you, Steve.

Steve: Tell us about multiple sclerosis. I know that you have multiple sclerosis. Tell us what it is, and how is your particular condition?

Johnson: Well, I have had MS for a long time. I was diagnosed at a relatively early age—at about 20—and so, I have now had it for 30 years. And multiple sclerosis is a disease where myelin is damaged and myelin is the protein coating on your nerves of your central nervous system; and so, basically you can think of it as insulation on the nerves, which help signals transfer rapidly through your central nervous system; and what happens is—when that myelin is damaged—the signals breakdown and are unable to travel through the central nervous system and so therefore the result is sensory, motor, cognitive, and vision problems.

Steve: So, people are familiar with electrical wiring in their homes and they always have that little rubbery insulation on the outside. So, myelin is the biological equivalent of that.

Johnson: Absolutely. That's absolutely correct. And then since the damage can be anywhere in your spinal cord or brain, the variety of symptoms is very broad; and so everyone's mix of symptoms can be pretty different.

Steve: And correct me if I am wrong, but perhaps the best known example of an MS patient is Martin Sheen's President character on the West Wing.

Johnson: That's correct. I think, he kind of help put MS on the map. But there are [also] people like Richard Pryor—who is very severely impacted by the disease.

Steve: Right! Right!

Johnson: And many others. It's a long list.

Steve: Tell everybody who you are and how that plays into what your abilities were in terms of setting up this foundation.

Johnson: Well, that's a good question and a good setup because my background—if you would've asked me five years ago if I would be involved in a nonprofit on a full-time basis or in academic medical research, I would've thought you were crazy because my background—I was originally an engineer, then went back to business school, got an MBA, worked in consulting at the Boston Consulting Group; then I had a Fortune 100 company and then after that did several start-up companies. So, all of my career has been in the commercial world, and this is kind of a fluke that I am sort of doing this today.

Steve: Now, what exactly is the foundation and why wasn’t the typical course of biomedical research good enough for you?

Johnson: Well! It's a good question because the second change in my life—I would say the first major change in my life was being diagnosed with MS—and the second was actually seeing a short story, [a] short little one-paragraph item in Business Week about repairing MS, and, you know, for all the time prior to that it is always looking for [a] cure, looking for [a] cure, and I did not think that repair was possible. So, that little one-paragraph story lead me to start talking to people who were involved in current research, and there were two revelations that came out of that. One was that it looked like that the most recent discovery is that it appeared that repair was a possibility in the central nervous system; and [the] second was, the more I learned about how the current system for academic medical research is conducted, the more I realized that really if you try to design a system that would not result in treatment, basically you come up with the current system.

Steve: Talk about the current system—what its drawbacks are and what your foundation as a model addresses specifically.

Johnson: I think how we characterize our science is—most science is investigator driven; in other words, it's prompted by an idea that an individual investigator has for anin experiment and then they grab in various funds to do it. Our belief is that once there has been a certain number of discoveries, if you become outcome-directed and outcome-focused, then you take those discoveries and make sure that they are driving towards treatment—that that is a significant element of [what is] missing, and that you can leverage off of all that money you spend to build up the basic knowledge. One thing we try and do is accelerate the rate of discovery by collaboration—by getting scientists across the world to work together; and then I think the second thing we do is, we are establishing a mechanism to validate those discoveries in a manner that would make them relevant to commercial entities because commercial entities are the only people [who] could actually take something and turn it into a treatment. And then I would say this third thing we do is, we work with commercial industry to facilitate that transfer. And so essentially what we are trying to do is come up with discoveries and then de- risk them as[so] much that [we] will make it more and more attractive for a large company to then take that discovery and turn it into a treatment that can actually be useful to people.

Steve: So, how long has the foundation been in existence?

Johnson: We started funding research almost exactly two-and-a-half years ago.

Steve: Okay! so what are your markers for success over the next, say, two-and-a-half to five years?

Johnson: Well, before we came into existence, we had called the scientists that [were] involved in myelin repair research, and we asked them how long they believe[d] that it would [be] before there would be a drug target for myelin repair that could be licensed to a pharmaceutical company to go through clinical trial; and the consensus for that was about 15 to 20 years. So, I think it's kind of—say that would be roughly around 2020—and so, what we did is—after we had recruited what we would call a dream team of what we believe is the best individual in the world in each of the areas of expertise that we need to solve a particular problem—and we proposed with this team that they work as a team cooperatively, that they tie together each of their labs, so it wasn't just five individuals, but five labs, and that we work with them to put together a research plan, which was something that also is lacking in research. There is no overall roadmap, as this is investigator driven. Then—after we proposed that idea—then we said well how long in that environment do that you as a team think it will take you to come up with a myelin repair drug target; and after thinking about it they felt like they could do it [in] five years. So, since we started funding research in the summer of 2004, we set as our target to have one target license to a pharmaceutical company by the summer of 2009. But that really is our big stake in the ground and the research has been going so well that we now believe we actually would beat that target. So that we think we will license a target by 2008, which would be 12 years earlier than virtually anyone thought it could be done.

Steve: I am sure a lot of people are going to keep an eye on that. Have you been contacted by other individuals who are looking at your foundation as a model for a similar kind of thing for other diseases?

Johnson: Yes, we have! We have had actually about 46 other organizations contact us interested in how we are doing this. And I think that's an important point because we believe that the model that we are pioneering and demonstrating is applicable to virtually any disease. And so as a result, you [don’t] have to deal[worry] about funding. Till[To] date—of the funds we have raised—almost 60 percent of the funds have come from people who have no interest in multiple sclerosis, but instead are [not] really too satisfied with the overall pace of coming up with new treatments for important diseases and see this model as a way to accelerate all disease research; and so, yeah, we are really excited by the fact that we are—even after only two-and-a-half years—we now think we are going to meet[beat] our already very aggressive goal by at least a year. So, that has attracted a lot of attention from other disease foundations. Also, from other media. We have had a lot of interest in this and people trying to understand what this model is, how it works, and the impact it can have.

Steve: Yeah! And I am sure that there's going to be a synergistic affect there because the more people with different conditions hear about it, the more they are going to be interested in trying to start up their own version of this.

Johnson: Well, they will, and I think the other thing that is synergistic is that what we will find is obviously—if we could accomplish something in four years that someone thought it’s[is] going to take almost 20 years, then think of the additional knowledge that comes out earlier and so that knowledge can be applied to other diseases. In addition to that, we believe that what we are learning about myelin and myelin repair will have implications for other diseases. Myelin is almost, I believe, somewhat half of the volume of the brain; and so understanding myelin will have significant impact, we believe, for many other diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s and things like that.

Steve: Very interesting stuff; and obviously we wish you the best of luck and, you know, will be certain that [we] touch base a year or two down the road and see what kind of progress is being made.

Johnson: The rate of progress is really rapid, I think, and one thing anyone [who] is involved with Myelin Repair Foundation in any capacity [knows] is it’s amazing how rapidly things change from week to week actually. So, we would love to check back it[in] and give you an update.

Steve: Scott Johnson—thanks very much. We really appreciate it.

Johnson: Thank you.

Steve: For more on the Myelin Repair foundation, just go to www.myelinrepair.org.

Now, it's time to see which story was TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Let's review the four stories.

Story number 1: Napping bad for the heart.

Story number 2: New journal just for defending evolution in schools.

Story number 3: Simply believing your activity as[in] exercise makes it more effective.

Story number 4: Researchers have found evidence that West African chimps used stone tools to crack nuts 4,300 years ago.

Time's up!

Story number 4 is true. Researchers have found evidence that chimps in West Africa used stone tools to crack nuts over four millennia ago. That pushes known chimp tool use back thousands of years and also suggests that chimps and humans might have inherited that behavior from a long ago common ancestor. The finding appeared in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and you can read more in David Biello's February 12th article on our Web site, called "Chimpanzee Nut-Bashing Technology Proves Thousands of Years Old".

Story number 3 is true. Physical activity labeled as exercise made it more effective to the people doing it. That's according to a study of hotel cleaning staff published in the journal Psychological Science. Those who were told that cleaning rooms, making beds—that kind of thing—was a good workout were in better shape after a month than those who weren't told anything. Could be a placebo effect, or possibly the belief that they were exercising carried over to diet and other lifestyle changes for those who were told that they were working out all day. For more, see the story in our Web site called "Belief in Exercise May Make it More Effective".

Story number 2 is true. The new quarterly journal Outreaching Education and Evolution is intelligently designed to aid teachers who find themselves under attack by creationists and intelligent design proponents. The official announcement of the new journal took place February 12th—that's Darwin’s birthday. It sounds like they have the right guys and the master too. The co-editors are evolutionary biologist Nile Zoledrich and his son, Gregg, who is a high-school science teacher.

All of which means that story number 1 about napping being bad for the heart is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Because a study out of Greece found that a nice midday snooze seems to offer some protection against heart-related deaths. For more, check out the February 14th episode of the daily Scientific American podcast 60-Second Science. You know, I visited the Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream Research Lab last year for the podcast that ran on July 5th, 2006 and they have a nap roomNile Zoledrichwhen you work there you can bed down for 20 minutes in the middle of a day. Imagine a place [where] you get free ice cream and naps and you are more than fours year[s] old.

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at podcast@sciam.com. Check out news articles at our Web site, www.sciam.com; and the daily Sciam podcast 60-Second Science is at the Web site and at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Web sites mentioned on this episode include www.sciam.com; www.sciammind.com; www.myelinrepair.org

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