The murders of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk by Dan White created a media sensation 40 years ago. Part of the public uproar involved a diminished capacity alibi employed by Mr. White’s lawyers that was repackaged by others as the captivating “Twinkie defense” (1). The central tenet of the alleged Twinkie defense was that consumption of sugary junk foods impaired the defendant’s mental capacity. Although the actual legal defense revolved around the consequences of Mr. White’s untreated depression, part of the evidence brought forth was his switch to an unhealthy diet. The mis-characterized trial strategy provoked public outrage and was established as an urban legend (1).
Not long after this shocking trial had concluded I was a graduate student being introduced to the biochemistry of neuronal cells by Professor Michael Collins. I recall Dr. Collins discussing the Twinkie defense, indicating that although the public perceptions about it may not have been completely accurate, neurons were sensitive to their environments. Although not much direct evidence was in hand at that time, Dr. Collins did not dismiss the possibility dietary choices might substantially impact human behavior. Science may soon have a great deal more to say about such matters.
Researchers are now tracing out the complex biochemical transactions that take place between human beings and the invisible microbes living in and on us (2). It turns out that the benefits of a healthy, high fiber diet actually reach us indirectly through the metabolic transformations produced by a diverse community of active microorganisms. Gut microbes, our personal gastrointestinal microbiomes, are influenced by diet and, in turn, feed back essential, health-maintaining signals to our cells. Evidence is accumulating that gut bacteria may synthesize or regulate the levels of key neurotransmitters such as serotonin that are known to play important roles in disorders such as depression (3).
The discoveries revealing the intricate interactions between gut bacteria and the brain hint we may see new ways to mitigate some significant human health issues. If such notions are validated, could the findings herald the transformation of the Twinkie defense from inaccurate legend into a compelling, scientifically-grounded legal strategy?
Then again, perhaps the lawyers of the future will never need it. If we comprehend how dietary choices influence behavior, scientist-nutritionists of the future might devise new foods (4) and probiotic programs to keep us all happy and well-behaved in a brave new world.
(1) David Mikkelson. The Twinkie Defense. Snopes.com, 27 August 2009. https://www.snopes.com/legal/twinkie.asp
(2) Carl Zimmer. Fiber is Good for You. Now Scientists May Know Why. The New York Times, 1 January 2018. https://t.co/tCfReMWXaj
(3) David Kohn. When Gut Bacteria Change Brain Function. The Atlantic, 24 June 2015. https://t.co/XpU4K5PMug
(4) Barbara J. King. Clean Meat, Via Lab, Is On the Way. NPR, 2 January 2018. https://t.co/UJ71m9B9Eo