As I write this article, I’m on a small plane, throttling over the clouds somewhere between Florida1 and Montreal. Someone behind me is snoring, and I’m tapping away quietly on my laptop, trying not to wake them up. I’ve just returned from one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I’d like to share the story.
In the summer of 2018, I went on an organized trip to Israel, called Birthright, or Taglit in Hebrew. The trip is sponsored by the Israeli government and is made free for young Jews, in an effort to encourage a connection and immigration to Israel. We spent ten days hauling around the beautiful country on a bus, visiting various sites and attractions. One evening, a man from an organization called Gift of Life came to speak to our group. He explained that GoL is a registry with a mission to cure blood cancer through cellular therapy,2 and we could get involved. The organization runs drives on campuses and elsewhere, and that to join the registry of potential donors, we had to swab our cheeks. If anyone of us were found to be a match for someone with leukemia, we would have the opportunity to donate bone marrow. I completed the kit and joined the registry without much thought.
A few months ago, I got an email from GoL that I was a potential match for a man suffering from leukemia. At that point, I was told, I had a 25% chance of being a match. That was much better than the 1 in 430 chance most donors had, but I still didn’t think much of it. I was asked to do another cheek swab test, which was sent to me through expedited delivery from GoL’s lab in Florida. Blood tests followed, all hurriedly done in clinics that had been transformed into Covid-19 testing sites. Montreal was under lockdown and travel was restricted, so it was a nerve-wracking time.
After the tests, things picked up pace. I still remember the phone call I received, telling me that I was a match. The plan was to fly me Florida to go through a procedure where my stem cells could be extracted and transplanted into the leukemia patient, saving his life.
In late October, GoL flew my sister and I to Florida, all expenses paid. We were there for a week, since for 4 days prior to the procedure I had to be injected each morning with a medication to increase the stem cell count in my blood. We were put up in a hotel by the beach, and each day after my morning injection my sister and I got to explore the area. We visited museums, the wetlands, Trader Joe’s and the beach. As this was the height of the election, we witnessed multiple Trump rallies, a mask burning ceremony, and we were told who to vote for by cashiers, Uber drivers, and an anti-vax protester (too bad neither me nor my sister are American).
At the end of the week, a sleek car service drove us to the donation center. It didn’t seem clinical at all- we were greeted warmly, and offered snacks, a blanket, and other comforts. I was shown into a cubicle where the nurses administered some tests and gave me my final shot of medication. Then, I had a needle inserted into each of my arms. During a process called Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) donation, blood was taken out of one arm and run through a machine called a blood cell separator. The machine took PBSC, some platelets, and some white blood cells, and then returned plasma and red blood cells into my other arm.3
After about six hours, the machine was still chugging away beside me. Two women in lab coats, with clipboards and somber expressions, came into the cubicle.
“We have bad news,” they said.
At that point, I was tired, calcium deficient and cranky, and I feared the worst. Maybe my stem cells weren’t good enough. Maybe the patient’s condition had deteriorated. My worries proved to be unfounded when they said was that my stem cells were slow and I would need to stay in Florida for an extra day to finish the process. Our flight was changed and our hotel stay was extended.
Day two of the extraction process was rough. Both my arms were sore so I couldn’t move much. My fingers and nose were tingling and I was light-headed. After a total of eleven hours, they had collected all the stem cells and plasma that they needed. (For comparison, the guy in the next cubicle took three hours to donate.)
I’ll have to wrap up this article because the plane is landing, and I should probably stow my laptop. I feel really blessed to have been afforded this opportunity. Not many people get the chance to save a life, and in sunny Florida, no less. This experience restored my faith in humanity just a tiny bit. First, it’s thanks to modern medicine and technology that I could fly to another country, have some of my insides removed, and have that flown across the world to save someone’s life. Second, the existence of Gift of Life facilitated this entire process, thanks to all the financial donors, employees, and everyone who’s gotten their cheeks swabbed and joined the registry. I’m enormously grateful to have been a part of it all.
To find out how you can join the registry and potentially save a life, visit www.giftoflife.org.
The Science of Motivation
Dopamine. You’ve likely heard of this celebrity neurotransmitter in the news, or in the context of drugs or mental health. Dopamine is often touted as the source of pure pleasure: a survey of books on the subject show titles like Habits of a Happy Brain or Meet your Happy Chemicals. While that’s true, there’s more to the story. In reality, dopamine is implicated in many brain processes, like movement, learning, memory, sleep regulation, and even lactation. Once we look at how dopamine got its reputation and how it works, we’ll focus on one of dopamine’s important roles: motivation.
The chemical with a backstory
If we look back at the 1980s, we can start to understand how dopamine got crowned as the pleasure maker. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, an American research institute, began doing studies to find out how addiction works. By monitoring the brains of people using drugs such as amphetamines, they found the strong presence of you-know-who: dopamine. Thus, the link was made between dopamine and pleasure. You take a drug or engage in a pleasurable activity, and bam, your brain lights up like crazy, signals are sent back and forth, and you’re on a high.
This framework persisted for a few decades, and in fact persists in popular culture, but by the early 2010’s more and more studies had piled up that led to a new way of thinking. Dopamine is still in the picture when you eat a rich piece of cheesecake or receive a good hug, but like so many things, it’s complicated. Let’s take a look at how dopamine actually works.
What is it, and how can I get some
Your body contains over one hundred billion neurons, cells that receive information about the world and talk to other neurons about what to do with that information, like act or think. One of the ways that these nerve cells talk to each other is through neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that can shoot across the space between neurons. Dopamine, like some of its well-known cousins serotonin and oxytocin, is a neurotransmitter.
As mentioned earlier, one of dopamine’s important roles is motivation. A now-famous study done in 2003 showed that when rats were able to push levers to receive cocaine, their brains were flooded with dopamine before they received the drug. What happened is called a positive prediction error- the rats’ brains told them that pushing the lever would deliver something great, and once they received a surprisingly good reward, they remembered the sequence of events so they know what do for next time. Similarly, when researchers at the University of Tsukuba showed monkeys different pictures, each associated with a different reward, they found that dopamine flooded the monkeys’ brains while deciding which option to choose, and again when they made their choice.
Clearly, dopamine is needed to make decisions and to supply the motivation needed to achieve certain goals. “Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things, so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself,” says John Salamone, professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut. It’s not all positive, because dopamine can be present when people are experiencing stress or pain. Researchers at the University of Miami found that dopamine was released in the brains of soldiers with PTSD when they heard the sound of gunfire. In that case, dopamine’s role is aversive, training and motivating the brain to stay away from situations that are stressful or traumatic.
New understandings of the neurotransmitter have helped researchers understand illnesses like depression and ADHD, cases where a person will have very low levels of dopamine, and therefore lowered motivation to get things done. In the case of addiction to drugs like cocaine, the brain’s reward pathway gets hijacked, making the addicted person highly motivated to keep using the drug at the expense of anything else.
A practical understanding of how dopamine plays into memory and learning can also aid the average student. “Dopamine leads to maintain the level of activity to achieve what is intended. This in principle is positive, however, it will always depend on the stimuli that are sought: whether the goal is to be a good student or to abuse drugs,” says Mercè Correa, a researcher at Universitat Jaume I of Castellón. In other words, it’s helpful to have dopamine firing in your brain, within reason.
So here’s a few things you can do: first, break down your goals into small, manageable amounts. Your brain enjoys the feeling of achievement, so bring able to check things off your to-do list will give you a rush of dopamine. You can also eat food rich in tyrosine, an amino acid that is used to make dopamine. This includes protein-rich foods like eggs, legumes, turkey, and beef. Hopefully, armed with this new knowledge you’ll be motivated to go do some homework.
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