Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Heroes: The secret to superpower is the adrenal glands

Angela Cavallo, who is in her late 50s, said her son Tony was working beneath his 1964 Chevrolet Impala when the bumper jack slipped and the car fell on him, knocking him out. [...] Cavallo held the car while a young boy rushed down the street and found two neighbors who reinserted the jack and dragged out the teenager, who was not seriously hurt.
~ "Mother lifts car off son", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 14, 1982
It's the stuff of urban legends: a mother sees her child in danger and with a mighty surge of adrenaline is able to perform feats of seemingly superhuman strength. Exaggerate that story by a couple orders of magnitude and you end up with a superhero like the Hulk who is only super-strong when he's angry (and you wouldn't like him when he's angry).

So what is actually happening physiologically? If our brain perceives a threatening situation, it stimulates the adrenal glands to release epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Adrenaline is a catecholamine hormone, which is derived from the amino acid tyrosine. When it is released into the bloodstream, it causes physiological changes that prepare our bodies for either "fight or flight": the heart beats faster, the blood vessels in the skeletal muscles dilate, providing them with more oxygen-carrying blood, and the blood vessels in the skin and digestive system constrict, and there is an increase in blood sugar. The body is now ready for rapid action.

It's not surprising that some of the superhumans on the TV show Heroes can most readily access their powers when angry or frightened. Take Maya, for example. Put her in a dangerous situation and her eyes turn oily black and everyone around her drops dead.* As the current season of Hereos begins, Maya is staying with Mohinder Suresh, the geneticist who has been trying to understand the biological basis for what he calls "evolved humans". Mohinder accidentally frightens Maya, which triggers her powers. Fortunately, she gets it under control before she kills him, and Mohinder has an epiphany: the secret to her superhuman abilities lies in an adrenal gland secretion.

While the adrenal gland connection seems plausible, Mohinder unfortunately then goes on to explain the next step in his research. He supposedly combines some tyrosine with Maya's adrenal gland secretions and to get an enzyme, which really makes no sense at all. As TrinityVixen at Pink Raygun snarkily put it:
Mohinder intimates that some combination of Maya’s humours is what gives her super powers. Her genes determine how the powers manifest, but some compounds in her system have to trigger the genes in the first place. And because adrenaline sets it off for her, that’s how it must work for every super. (Even the ones like Micah who are totally calm when they use their powers.) What I just wrote there is hand-waving magic. It’s still more scientific than Mohinder’s explanation. By his “reasoning” I’m developing superpowers right now as my blood pressure skyrockets because of the bad “science.”


Mohinder’s centrifuge gives him the enzyme. What enzyme? Oh, you know, an enzyme he made out of a corticosteroid hormone and a single amino acid. What the *bleep* is going on here? His centrifuge has given him a super power cocktail. This is like how the IR Spectrometer on CSI can do DNA genotyping. (The IR Spec that’s actually an autoclave.) Just…no. But we shouldn’t doubt his credentials. He’s got colored liquids in jars and tubes! (At this point, my roommate said, “THAT’S CHEMISTRY.” I promised I’d credit her.)**

And since "blood chemistry is unique, like fingerprints", that enzyme will apparently do something different depending on whether you are O- or AB+ or have high cholesterol or low thyroid hormone levels. It's pretty hard to think of a differences in blood chemistry that could determine whether you can teleport or have healing power or shoot electricity from your hands, even if you assume humans could have those powers. At this point the "science" is not really any different from magic.

But even assuming that the enzyme has essentially magical properties, Mohinder's subsequent behavior doesn't make much sense. He doesn't know if the enzyme would be toxic to an apparently normal person. He is also aware that the superpowers are apparently random, with some good (like flying) and some bad (like killing everyone around you). He is supposedly a brilliant scientist, so why is his next move to go outside and inject himself with his preparation? Of course he gets lucky, and the enzyme turns him into a super-strong wall-climbing sex machine. There are those strange growths on his back, and he seems to be secreting goo, but we won't learn more about that until next week . . .

I'm hoping that Mohinder's transformation means that he'll stop with the science already and get on with fighting villains and saving the world, which is why I watch Heroes in the first place.

Watch the two-hour premier of this season's Heroes at Hulu.com: The Second Coming and The Butterfly Effect

* Maya does not have the most useful superpower, since she indiscriminately kills both friends and foes.

** Are there any chemists out there who want to tackle Hiro's half of the secret chemical formula? I see what looks like a purine base, but then my eyes glazed over.

(Image of Mohinder via Heroes News and Spoilers)



  1. The amount of energy put out by a lot of the characters in Heroes seems beyond what you could expect from a biological source. Flight for instance -- imagine how fatigued you'd if you walked the distances that characters fly.

    Speaking of flies. Doesn't the Mohinder scenario seem reminiscent of Cronenberg's version of The Fly?

  2. That's actually an excellent point about the energy required for their physical feats. They could at least show them getting ravenously hungry and tired after flying, or time traveling or whatever.

    The scene with Mohinder was close enough to Cronenberg's The Fly that it must have been intentional, but a homage rather than a lazy copy. That's what I prefer to think, anyway.

  3. Anonymous9:10 PM

    I know this seems pretty dangerous but i actually tested the angry theory and check what would happen strength does kick in but soon it gives away once the middle of your chest starts hurting I think thats where adrenaline is produced but I'm not sure. Now for the calm theory which just got tested by itself One day I sat at the nurses office and laid down on a bench completely calm with no thoughts just relaxing and my head just happened to hit the back of the bench. It seems as though I floated and fell but I'm not entirely sure. I just really want to know if this all is possible because well I'm 15 and allot of strange things have been happening.

  4. Anonymous9:35 AM

    Oh excellent! All season, I've been looking for a discussion of Mohinder's magic concoction from someone who knows more biology and biochemistry than I do.

    I'll link to this from my blog at http://blog.scienceofheroes.com

  5. Cool Yvonne. I didn't realize you had a blog!

  6. Anonymous4:09 AM

    Adrenaline is released from the adrenal glands. Too much adrenaline will increases your blood pressure and heart rate to the point that you'll start feel it and want to stop. Even then adrenaline can be sustained for minutes to more than half an hour, providing some increased strength but even more so increased stamina/energy. Those who can master the movement of their Chi /focus it may be able to light things on fire upon close contact, manipulate their body weight to walk on water, see with their eyes closed, etc.

  7. De Novo8:25 PM

    I am not trying to say that Heroes has the best science, but I think this was somewhat biased. For example, I don't think he meant that he used only the centrifuge and the other things (to lazy to type them all) but that those were the cornerstones of preparation. Also, it isn't complete fantasy to say that certain hormones cause a genetic change. They do not mutate anything, but some studies have shown that the human growth hormone triggers the activation of certain genes that speed up tissue regeneration (like how fat women can have kids naturally born with a larger 'base' weight). Wouldn't it make sense that the evolved humans in heroes have some sort of genetic alteration that causes their adrenaline to have a slightly different reaction in a person to activate and deactivate certain genes depending on the body chemistry (which will determine how exactly the body metabolizes it) and give powers to people?


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