Ever get a buzz from reading a press release?

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My education in the rhetoric of press relations continues. On February 8, the BioMed Central Press Office sent out an email to registered readers with the Subject line "Chocoholic mice fear no pain". On February 9, a press release under the same title appeared on Eureka Science News wire, which began

Ever get a buzz from eating chocolate? A study published in the open access journal BMC Neuroscience has shown that chocolate-craving mice are ready to tolerate electric shocks to get their fix.

A quick glance of the study in question (Emanuele Claudio Latagliata et al., "Food seeking in spite of harmful consequences is under prefrontal cortical noradrenergic control", BMC Neuroscience, provisional publication date 8 February 2010) is enough to show that it's not about "chocolate-craving mice" but rather about the effects on mice of "exposure to a food restriction experience".

Basically, mice like chocolate, but if you give them electric shocks when they try to get at it, their "chocolate-seeking behavior" is "suppressed", i.e. they tend to learn not to enter a section of their cage (the "chocolate-chamber") where the chocolate can be found, instead spending more time in the "empty-safe chamber". However, if you first starve them a bit (by subjecting them to a "moderate food-restriction schedule" adjusted to cause a loss of 15% of body weight over five days, and then give them two days of ad libitum feeding to cancel acute nutritional deficits), the electric shocks are less effective at suppressing their chocolate-seeking behavior.

Thus the control-group mice and the food-restricted mice have exactly the same experience of chocolate, and exactly the same innate taste for it. The FR group is not so much "chocolate-craving" as "food-craving". Rather than "chocolate-craving mice are ready to tolerate electric shocks to get their fix", a more accurate description would be "mice who have been starved are more willing to ignore possible electric shocks to get at food". (The real — and I think important — scientific interest of the article is in the "prefontal cortical noradrenergic" part, but never mind that.)

There are two strokes of public-relations genius here. One is the experimenters' choice of chocolate as the food to try to condition mice not to seek. Chocolate-seeking is surely much easier to sell to readers (and thus to editors) than Purina-Mouse-Chow-seeking. The second clever move is the PR choice to spin this as being about addiction to chocolate rather than about reaction to enforced dieting.

I wasn't the only one to notice these rhetorical choices — see Jessica Palmer, "Cocoa Madness: aberrant chocolate-seeking mice run rampant!", Bioephermera, 2/8/2010.

Anyhow, it seems to be working. Current headlines and ledes via Google News include "Mice Endure Electrical Shocks for Chocolate" ("Is chocolate as addictive as heroin? Possibly."); "Chocoholic mice really crave chocolate" ("Italian scientists say they've showed chocolate-craving mice so desire chocolate, they will tolerate electric shocks to pursue the food."); and so on.

And responding to a request for jokes from readers in the NYT, Paul Seaburn of Spring, Tex., sent in this one:

Scientists in Italy have developed a strain of chocolate-craving mice that love chocolate so much, they will tolerate electric shocks to pursue the food. They’re called female mice.

I was happy to see that one news agency, ANI, seems to have discarded the suggested spin in favor of something much closer to the truth, but still likely to interest the public: "Going on a diet can trigger lifetime of overeating" ("A study has found that going on a diet could trigger a lifetime of overeating and even cause changes to the brain.")

The "lifetime of overeating" is a bit of a stretch, given that the mice were just two days removed from their "food-restriction schedule"); and it always amuses me to see people so impressed by the idea that behavioral changes might be associated with "changes in the brain" (as opposed to changes in the soul, I guess); but still, this is pretty good.


  1. Comwave said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

    Attention-craving headlines and ledes will tolerate electric shocks. And they can trigger lifetime of exaggeration and "over(inter)pretation."

  2. Mr Punch said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

    Actually, prior research has shown that while mice will not normally overeat, that doesn't apply to chocolate – it overrides their appetite control (satiation).

    [(myl) My (limited) understanding is that this is not specific to chocolate, but applies to a range of high-fat foods with less anthropogenic appeal. Bacon-grease buzz, anyone?]

  3. e.lee said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

    apparently not just chocolate, coffee too

  4. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 8:25 pm

    > […] it always amuses me to see people so impressed by the idea that behavioral changes might be associated with "changes in the brain" (as opposed to changes in the soul, I guess); […]

    I wonder if people have a sort of implicit mental model of the brain as being like a physical computer, and the mind as being like the software. By this sort of model, the mind would be stored/encoded in the brain, but even a fairly drastic change to the mind wouldn't cause a noticeable change in the brain. By comparison: installing Windows vs. Linux causes a very drastic change in your computer's waking behavior, but the difference is basically undetectable when it's asleep. So, only really physical things, — like cancers, or concussions, or cravings for chocolate — would affect the brain's actual wiring.

    [(myl) Interesting idea: computational dualism.]

  5. Tim Silverman said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 8:19 am

    @Ran Ari-Gur: I suspect what is involved might be more along the lines of a sharp division between a stable personality, which determines "who you are", and is "in the brain", vs changes of mood, engagement in various activities, etc, which are (in somewhat the Aristotelian or scholastic sense) accidental rather than essential, and are just "the mind". So something that "changes your brain" is conceptualised as changing you into a "different person".

    Of course, this sort of thing only gets reported in the newspapers when it is newsworthy, i.e. very surprising and unintuitive, i.e. extremely improbable, i.e. not true. But in everyday life the division makes a sort of rough-and-ready sense.

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