The Earth Plays music
for those who listen
This Pandemic has created loss of the most essential kinds – identity, connection, income safety, isolation from support systems and people, even loss of our daily routines and conveniences.
Initially, we are mobilized to find new ways of coping, new ways of living within the confines of an unseen threat. At some point grief follows, the natural response to loss of any and all kinds. We typically think of grieving as an emotional response but the first signs can sometimes appear in ways we don’t label as grieving.
What causes these physical symptoms? A range of studies reveal the powerful effects grief can have on the body:
“In normal, situational grief, the sad thoughts and feelings typically occur in waves or bursts followed by periods of respite. People usually retain “self-esteem, a sense of humor, and the capacity to be consoled or distracted from the pain” in normal grief.
What Can You Do to Cope With Grief?
Emotional and physical self-care are essential ways to ease complications of grief and boost recovery. Exercising, spending time in nature, getting enough sleep, and talking to loved ones can help with physical and mental health.
“Most often, normal grief does not require professional intervention. Grief is a natural, instinctive response to loss, adaptation occurs naturally, and healing is the natural outcome,” especially with “time and the support of loved ones and friends.”
For many people going through a hard time, reaching out is impossible. If your friend is in grief, reach out to them.
Grief researchers emphasize that social support, self-acceptance, and good self-care usually help people get through grief.
And if you feel like your whole life has fallen apart, It has. Now you haven’t lost your ability to decide how to respond.
Part II will follow explaining the difference between “Situational Grief” and Compounded Grief.
Research suggests that social isolation can trigger increased heart rate, muscle tension, and lead to chronic conditions such as hypertension
“Just after a few weeks of social distancing and self-isolation because of COVID-19, we have noticed the decline in our social interactions and might have felt the change in our mental and physical health. It is being called the ‘social recession’ — a collapse in our social contacts, matching the economic recession that is looming beyond COVID-19.”
“Usually when things get tough, we tend to lean towards our personal relationships to seek their advice and support. Ironically, that is the very thing we cannot do in the current crisis. While there are no quick fix solutions to deal with increasing anxiety due to social isolation, there are ways we can smarten our approach to deal with it.”
“Begin by acknowledging that these are unprecedented times, unlike what we have seen before, hence, it is quite normal to feel anxious and lonely. It is important to know that the whole world is in the same state as us, and we are all in this together. Use this time to establish forgotten connections via technology and catch up with friends and family whom you may have been putting on the back burner because of your busy schedule. Most importantly, put the focus back on your self-care, eat well, exercise regularly, find ways to calm and focus yourself.”
With a viral epidemic encircling the globe this information may not quell fear, it won’t make those who are ill feel better but it will explain how our miraculous mind-body is ultimately trying to keep us safe.
1. Activating the immune system, however, costs your body a lot of energy. This presents a series of problems that your brain and body must solve to fight against infection most effectively. Where will this extra energy come from? What should you do to avoid additional infections or injuries that would increase the immune system’s energy requirements even more?
2. Fever is a critical part of the immune response to some infections, but the energy cost of raising your temperature is particularly high. Is there anything you can do to reduce this cost?
3. To eat or not to eat is a choice that affects your body’s fight against infection. On one hand, food ultimately provides energy to your body, and some foods even contain compounds that may help eliminate pathogens. But it also takes energy to digest food, which diverts resources from your all-out immune effort. Consuming food also increases your risk of acquiring additional pathogens. So what should you eat when you’re sick, and how much?
(“Of course these changes depend on the context. While it may make sense to reduce food intake to prioritize immunity when the sick individual has plenty of energy reserves, it would be counterproductive to avoid eating if the sick person has malnutrition or on the verge of starvation.”)
“This kind of coordinating program is what some psychologists call an emotion: an evolved computational program that detects indicators of a specific recurrent situation. When the certain situation arises, the emotion orchestrates relevant behavioral and physiological mechanisms that help address the problems at hand.”
Some of these coordinating programs line up nicely with our understanding about what makes up an emotion. We understand the emotion of fear when in reality or imagination we think we are threatened by a threat OUTSIDE our body. For example:
“Imagine you’re walking through the woods, thinking you’re alone, and suddenly you are startled by sounds suggesting a large animal is nearby. Your pupils dilate, hearing becomes attuned to every little sound, your cardiovascular system starts to work harder in preparation for either running away or defending yourself. These coordinated physiological and behavioral changes are produced by an underlying emotion program that corresponds to what you might think of as a certain kind of fear.”
“This way of thinking has helped researchers understand why some emotions exist and how they work. For instance, the pathogen disgust program detects indicators that some potentially infectious agent is nearby. Imagine you smell the stench of feces: The emotion of disgust coordinates your behavior and physiology in ways that help you avoid the risky entity.”
“These coordinated physiological and behavioral changes are produced by an underlying emotion program that corresponds to what you might think of as a certain kind of fear.
Some psychologists suggest these emotion programs likely evolved to respond to identifiable situations that occurred reliably over evolutionary time, that would affect the survival or reproduction of those involved.”
The next time you “feel” sick try to remember your mind-body wants you to survive.
This article was originally published on The Conversation by Joshua Schrock.
There is unprecedented anxiety in the entire world due to the pandemic. Fear and anxiety is a normal response to unknown threats to our survival and well-being. The problem for all of us is prolonged and chronic anxiety which elevates the stress response and lowers our immune response.
And from Curious to the Max:
You’ve seen the pictures of winter scenes – the on-lookers, clad in warm winter coats, hats, gloves, erupt in cheers as swimmers in bathing suits dash into the ice-cold waters of lakes, oceans and ponds surrounded by snow and ice.
This is ice swimming, and it’s more than dipping a toe into your local outdoor pool. These events take place in water colder than 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius), and you won’t see anyone in a wetsuit.
With over 40 countries having branches of the International Ice Swimming Association, it is clearly becoming a popular sport, offering a dose of adrenaline and adventure.
“It’s almost like the water is denser and I can feel it all down my arms and on my legs, and when I kick against it, it feels heavier than in a warm swimming pool,” Campbell said. “I think that feeling, that sense of being in nature in that moment, on the edge is really exhilarating,”
In addition to the adrenaline rush, early studies suggest that cold-water swimming could be a treatment for depression, as it activates the sympathetic nervous system and increases blood levels of noradrenaline and beta-endorphin, which play an important role in the functioning of the heart.
“While the specific effects, the benefits of ice swimming haven’t really been studied in a scientific manner, we can certainly look at other types of cryotherapy for any perceived benefits,” Packer said.
Besides an adrenaline rush, early studies suggest that cold-water swimming could be a treatment for depression, as it activates the sympathetic nervous system and increases blood levels of noradrenaline and beta-endorphin, which play an important role in the functioning of the heart.
Not all fun and games
“Despite some potential benefits, ice swimming can be a risky activity for rookies, so don’t go jumping into a freezing pool without some supervised practice. In this kind of sport, proper training is essential not only to success but to survival.”
“Someone might be able to swim 10 to 12 hours in water that’s 16 or 17 degrees (Celsius), and they are swimming 20 minutes in water of this temperature,” said Dr. Ruth Williamson, who led the medical team at the ice swimming event at Loch Lomond.
“This is something you train for. You get your body used to getting in to the cold water and get over that cold shock,” she said. With training, a competitor’s muscles adapt to a lower blood supply so they can keep that muscle effort going longer.”
Regular icy swims allow the body to acclimate or learn to navigate potential dangers such as hyperventilation, high blood pressure and hypothermia.
“Even out of the water, there’s a risk of the body temperature dropping even further, so it’s important to be monitored for an hour or so after a swim,”
(Don’t) dive right in!
“This is definitely not something to try by yourself. All of the ice swimmers often start swimming in the summer and gradually acclimatize,” Campbell said.
It’s also best to enter slowly rather than diving in if the water is under 15 degrees Celsius, though this may come as a natural instinct anyway, to counter the body’s gasp reflex.
“Swimming in icy water is not for the faint-hearted — literally. If you have heart problems or pre-existing medical conditions, you should seek advice from a doctor before swimming, Packer said.”
British swimmer Jess Campbell — who holds the British women’s record in her age group for an ice kilometer (swimming 1 kilometer in waters of 41 degrees Fahrenheit or less) says:
“Usually, I feel fantastic. I get a huge buzz … a sense of elation, and I just want to do it again. I definitely have a sense of energy, a sense of life, a sense of purpose. It’s a definite mood-lifter, no question.”
Slim down, trim down and slow down. Not your body . . . Your brain.
Give your mind a rest. On average we have between 60,000 and 80,000 thoughts a day – EXHAUSTING, RIGHT?. Take time – even just five minutes a day will make a difference – to calm your mind and reduce incessant internal chatter.
Try neurochemical time-outs:
Record your thoughts and prioritize. Thoughts filled with worries, stresses and to-do’s can be overwhelming. When you write thoughts down on paper your brain says, “Whew, now I can stop trying to remind him/her OVER AND OVER AND OVER SO THERE’S NO FORGETTING.”
When a worrisome, stressful, hurtful, anxiety provoking thought comes into your head:
Actually listen to people. It’s not ALWAYS about YOU.
A good way of knowing if you are actually listening to others is to check your thoughts while they’re talking – are you thinking about the story you’re about to tell or impatient to jump in with your own anecdote or advice (like eating alone while watching TV)? Focus on what they’re saying without thinking about what you’ll say next or the point you want to get across and notice how you feel more present, calmer.
Stop beating yourself up. The only person who expects you to be perfect, is you (and perhaps a parent). Give yourself a break and let go of the need to be perfect in everything and anything. You’ll be able to release any guilt that way too.
Speaking of guilt . . . my criteria is Illegal, Immoral, Unethical. IF it doesn’t meet at least one of those standards guilt is the wrong emotion. Pick another feeling food group – sad, mad, glad, disgusted, afraid.
Shift your thinking. The way that we think about things has an impact on our neurochemistry which impacts our emotions, our health and our bodies. Flip negative thinking to positive or even neutral is changes the brain chemistry and reduces the stress response.
Catastrophizing a situation can also lead us to make rash and wrong choices. When we respond ‘defensively’ the stress response is elevated.
There is a lot of research into early trauma and disease. The brain’s development under stress changes the brain structurally as well as neurochemically. The brain however, exhibits neuroplasticity which allows it to change and learn.
Read this article which we’ve posted in it’s entirety to understand how we can help children (and we know the activities described can help adults too).
Around the room, students lie flat on the floor, blinking up through the cucumber slices pressed to their eyes. Some sprawl out, arms spread wide, as others fold their hands together or reach up to feel the fruit’s coolness.
Cucumbers do more than signal a spa day in the movies, the students are learning. Rather, the slices can act as an anti-inflammatory for a stressed-out brain in the same way that ice treats injuries. They can calm the mind and prepare it for learning—a perfect addition to the collection of relaxation strategies Lori Desautels has brought to classrooms in Indianapolis and across the nation.
Throughout fall 2019, the College of Education Assistant Professor visited those fifth-graders every week to teach them about the brain, how it works, why we experience stress, and how to regulate emotions. Students learned that the prefrontal cortex is the brain’s center of learning, decision making, and problem solving. They learned that the amygdala, formed by a small set of deep-brain neurons, causes powerful emotions such as anger and fear that can make it difficult to concentrate. And they learned that, through a range of activities that incorporate breathing, movement, or sound, they can control those emotions and relax their minds.
It’s all part of Desautels’ work in a field known as educational neuroscience, which focuses on finding the most effective strategies for working with students who have experienced adversity or trauma. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 60 percent of American children will experience at least one adverse childhood experience—or a potentially traumatic event—by the time they turn 18. About one in every six children will have four or more of these experiences, which can include circumstances such as violence, abuse, neglect, poverty, mental illness, food insecurity, or drug use, to name a few.
Beyond causing long-term consequences for overall health, trauma can affect a child’s ability to succeed in school as stress inhibits the brain from making decisions and building relationships. Some students respond to pain with aggression, while others exhibit high rates of absenteeism or keep their heads down during class.
“As the research points,” she says, “anxiety has kind of become our nation’s new learning disability.”
Desautels tackles this problem from multiple fronts. Based on her research, she develops new strategies to help kids heal from trauma. She visits schools across Indiana, talking about the importance of caring for mental and emotional health in the classroom. Desautels works directly with children to help them succeed, and through leading workshops and teaching classes, she shows current and future educators how they can better support their students.
Desautels teaches a variety of strategies for responding to trauma in schools, but she says rethinking the discipline is the first step. When educators react with punishments based on frustration and arbitrary consequences, this usually reactivates a student’s stress response, leading to new trauma instead of new healing.
Change starts with teachers modeling the behavior they want to see from their students.
When a child’s actions require discipline, Desautels says the adult should always take some time to cool off. After reflecting on how the incident made them feel, they should explain to the student how they plan to calm down before addressing the situation.
I’m really frustrated, so we aren’t going to talk about this right now. I’ll count to four, and then I’ll take my two deep breaths, and then I’ll wait. And if my amygdala is still feeling angry, I’ll count to four again, until my cortex feels calm.
Teachers should also consider the power of non-verbal communication. Desautels says tone of voice is critical in calming a child’s nervous system, along with facial expressions, posture, and gestures.
“Emotions are contagious,” she says. “When a teacher is able to model a calm presence, students are less likely to react defensively.”
Once everyone feels relaxed, the teacher and student can discuss what happened, why it happened, and how they can repair the damage together. Consequences should follow naturally from the action in a meaningful way, Desautels says. For example, if the student was mean to a classmate, they could create something that shows kindness.
Desautels also stresses the need for listening to and validating the student throughout the process. If a child says, ‘This isn’t fair’ or ‘You are always picking on me,’ a validating comment might be, ‘That must feel so frustrating.’
“In the moment of rising tension,” she says, “when you feel someone hears you, that’s calming.”
But these strategies aren’t only for when there’s a problem. Building strong connections with students can help with easing their anxiety and preventing negative behavior from arising in the first place.
At Butler, Desautels has created a graduate certificate in Applied Educational Neuroscience to teach these strategies to educators, medical professionals, and others who work closely with children who have experienced trauma. The nine-credit-hour program launched in 2016 and has grown from just six students in the first cohort to more than 70 today. The classes explore the most recent research in neuroscience and attachment, then shift to how that research can be used to help students.
“And these strategies aren’t just useful for working with children,” Desautels says. “We are all dealing with more and more adversity and stress. Everyone taking this certificate is trying to improve on their professional practices, but I often hear feedback about how helpful it has been personally.”
Until a couple years ago, Emily Wilkerson didn’t know anything about neuroscience. She didn’t think she needed to. Then, as an Elementary Education major at Butler, she met Lori Desautels. “It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I realized teaching isn’t just about math, reading, writing, science, and social studies,” Wilkerson says. “Kids need so much more than academic content.”
So shortly after graduating in 2018 and taking a position with the then-new Butler Lab School 55, Wilkerson enrolled in Butler’s Applied Educational Neuroscience certificate. Right away, she started practicing the techniques in her fifth-grade classroom—the same classroom Desautels worked with last semester.
Together, Desautels and Wilkerson taught the students about three key regions of the brain and what it looks like to “be” in each one. In the prefrontal cortex, located near the forehead, the mind feels calm and creative. In the limbic system, closer to the center of the brain, you might start to be distracted by emotions such as fear, irritation, or embarrassment.
“When a student has experienced trauma, we know that their brain is most likely not in the prefrontal cortex throughout the day,” Wilkerson says. “There could be triggers in the classroom, or they could just think about something traumatic that happened to them, and that could completely spiral their day. If they are locked into that anxiety or fear, they are inclined to stay in that brain state—unless they know that they can regulate their brain.”
So, the students learned how to do just that.
Every time Desautels visited Wilkerson’s class, she brought a new focused attention practice. These activities quiet the mind by having kids focus on a specific stimulus, whether that is a sound, a sight, a taste, or a breath—similar to meditation. This helps soothe the nervous system in a way that makes it easier to cope with challenges.
Desautels also uses “brain breaks.” These exercises introduce new challenges or novel sensations to help break up the routine of a school day, training the mind to see things through new perspectives.
“If I’m feeling frustrated,” Wilkerson says, “I’m going to go sit in the reset corner and take 10 deep breaths, or roll playdough in my hands, because that might be something that feels good to me. But you can regulate a brain in a thousand different ways.”
Most of the fifth-grade students now use the language of neuroscience throughout the school day. And since Desautels first visited, Wilkerson has noticed an overall shift in classroom culture.
“We as elementary school teachers have the opportunity, if we are using the language of neuroscience in our classrooms, to really set students up for a greater level of success throughout their whole lives,” Wilkerson says. “I can’t imagine, if I could go back in time and learn about all this neuroscience during fifth grade, how that would have impacted me in middle school, high school, college, and adulthood.”
Beyond her work at Butler and in Indianapolis classrooms, Desautels visits schools across the state to speak about the trauma-responsive strategies she has developed. She’s also published three books about the human side of education, with a fourth expected to release in 2021.
Since she first started co-teaching six years ago, Desautels has worked with 13 classes ranging from preschool to 12th grade. It has become more common for schools to address mental and emotional wellbeing, but Desautels says her work is unique for its focus on actually teaching kids the science behind how their brains work.
“Teaching students about their amygdala and their fear response is so empowering,” she says. “When we understand that this biology is thousands of years in the making, hardwired to protect us, our minds begin to relax through knowing that our reactions to negative experiences are natural and common. Many of our children report a sense of relief to know there’s nothing wrong with them.”
Why do some people still believe the earth is flat, man hasn’t walked on the moon, the Holocast never happened or do not believe the scientific evidence of global warming? Given its negative impact on society, it is important to understand why certain groups of people are more vulnerable to believing unsupported lies than others. The fields of psychology and neuroscience can offer insight.
“This fact is based on a landmark study published in the journal PLOS ONE in 2009, which asked the simple question, how is the brain activated differently during a state of belief compared to a state of disbelief? To test this, participants were asked whether or not they believed in a series of statements while their brain activity was being imaged by an fMRI scanner. Some sentences were simple and fact-based (California is larger than Rhode Island), while others were more abstract and subjective (God probably does not exist). The results showed the activation of distinct but often overlapping brain areas in the belief and disbelief conditions.”
While these imaging results are complicated to interpret, the electrical patterns also showed something that was fairly straightforward. Overall, there was greater brain activation that persisted for longer during states of disbelief. Greater brain activation requires more cognitive resources, of which there is a limited supply. What these findings show is that the mental process of believing is simply less work for the brain, and therefore often favored. The default state of the human brain is to accept what we are told, because doubt takes effort. Belief, on the other hand, comes easily.
If children questioned every single fact they were being taught, learning would occur at a rate so slow that it would be a hindrance.
“For some children being taught to suppress critical thinking begins at a very early age. It is the combination of the brain’s vulnerability to believing unsupported facts and aggressive indoctrination that create the perfect storm for gullibility. Due to the brain’s neuroplasticity, or ability to be sculpted by lived experiences, some of us literally become hardwired to believe far-fetched statements.”
For example: This wiring begins when children are first taught to accept whatever adults tell them as objective truth and not to question. Even mystical explanations for natural events train young minds to not demand evidence for beliefs. “As a result, the neural pathways that promote healthy skepticism and rational thought are not properly developed. This inevitably leads to a greater susceptibility to whatever we are told.”
We are proponents of creativity in all forms and applaud these doctors and researchers for this possible pain-numbing approach. We are posting this article in its entirety and have the video and highlighted some of the information for those of you who want a “quickie”
by WILL STONE
Ann Jones has been spending two hours each day in front of a green LED light — an experimental treatment aimed at alleviating migraines and other forms of chronic pain.
Ann Jones tried everything short of surgery for her chronic migraines, which have plagued her since she was a child.
“They’ve actually gotten worse in my old age,” says Jones, who is 70 years old and lives in Tucson, Ariz. Jones would have as many as two dozen migraines a month. Over the years, some treatments might work initially, but the effects would prove temporary. Other medications had such severe side effects she couldn’t stay on them. “It was pretty life-changing and debilitating,” Jones says. “I could either plow through them and sometimes I simply couldn’t.”
In 2018, her doctor mentioned a study that was taking place nearby at the University of Arizona: Researchers were testing if daily exposure to green light could relieve migraines and other kinds of chronic pain.
It began with her spending two hours each day in a dark room with only a white light, which served as the control. In the second half of the study, she swapped out the conventional light for a string of green LED lights. For more than a month, Jones didn’t notice any change in her symptoms. But close to the six-week mark, there was a big shift.
She began going days in a row without migraines. Even when the headaches did come, they weren’t as intense as they had been before the green light therapy.”I got to the point where I was having about four migraines a month, if that many, and I felt like I had just been cut free,” Jones says.
Some patients in the study of about 25 people noticed a change in just a few days. For others, it took several weeks. Dr. Mohab Ibrahim, the migraine study’s principal investigator and an associate professor at the University of Arizona, says that on average, people experienced a 60% decrease in the intensity of their migraines and a drop from 20 migraines a month to about six.
The results of the migraine study aren’t published yet. But they build on a small but growing body of research suggesting a link between green light and pain, including animal research done by Ibrahim’s team. While there are not yet robust data on humans, some researchers see promise for a drug-free approach that could help with migraines and possibly other forms of chronic pain.
At his office in Tucson, Ibrahim demonstrates a device he has been using with patients. It’s a thin vertical stand mounted with green LED lights — an update from his earlier model, which was a simple string of lights.
Ibrahim, who directs the chronic pain clinic at Banner – University Medical Center Tucson, became interested in the idea of green light therapy because of something his brother told him about his headaches. Instead of taking medicine, he would sit in a garden and eventually they would subside. That got Ibrahim thinking about the color green and how green light could be applied as a therapy.
“There was a healthy dose of skepticism,” he says. “It was kind of strange. Why are you using light to treat pain?”
This low-tech approach to treating pain may seem out of sync with Ibrahim’s credentials*. As he puts it: “Drugs are my tools.” But he started to explore the idea anyway, designing an animal study, published in the journal Pain in 2017, that demonstrated that the pain response of rats decreased when they were exposed to green light.
“We were able to reproduce it over and over and over again to the point where you just had to follow the story,” he says.
The idea that there’s a link between green light and pain is being explored by several research groups.
Research led by Rodrigo Noseda at Harvard Medical School looked at light sensitivity, known as photophobia, a common symptom of migraines. The research, published in 2016, found that green light is significantly less likely to exacerbate a migraine compared with other colors and, in some cases, can actually decrease the intensity of the headache. The group at Harvard has also shown that green light can “trigger positive emotions” during migraines, in contrast to colors like red, which are associated with negative feelings.
Ibrahim and his research colleagues also found a connection with the visual system. As part of their 2017 study, they fitted tiny contact lenses on the rats.
They found that only the animals that could see green, either from an external light or through green lenses, had a drop in their pain response.
“We basically made the conclusion that whatever effect is happening is taking place through the visual system,” he says. “That’s why when we recruited patients, we told them you cannot fall asleep when you’re undergoing this therapy.”
Ibrahim says there’s a lot more to investigate about the biological underpinnings of the green light treatment, but research by him and his colleagues is offering some clues.
For example, Ibrahim’s 2017 study tested the effect of the opioid reversal drug naloxone on rats that had been exposed to green light. After administering the drug, there was a “complete reversal” of the pain-relieving effects of the green LED.
“Whatever the mechanism is, we thought maybe the endogenous opioid system might be involved,” Ibrahim says.
Ibrahim says his most recent research supports the theory that green light therapy is working in multiple ways: “It’s a concert of mechanisms working in harmony toward a common goal.”
Ibrahim was awarded funding by the National Institutes of Health to look deeper.
Ibrahim is also studying the effect of green light for conditions such as fibromyalgia, nerve pain related to HIV and chemotherapy and a painful bladder condition called interstitial cystitis.
The interaction between light and pain
The link between light and pain is a promising area of research, says Mary Heinricher, professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Neurological Surgery at Oregon Health & Science University, but she says she’s not yet convinced that color is the most important variable in modulating pain.
“The effects of the green light is pretty subtle,” Heinricher says. “We need the parallel work showing what are the relevant neural circuits if we are going to make anything tremendously useful for people.”
She says it also remains to be seen if the green light research translates into humans, who process color differently from how rodents do.
Heinricher doesn’t expect that green light will be a primary treatment for chronic pain anytime soon, but she says the research is a laudable and necessary step as we tease out the underlying science.
“We have tended to run to drugs and not thought about intervening in the physical environment,” she says. “This is a wake-up call. There’s something going on there.”
At OHSU, her team is looking at photosensitivity in veterans with chronic pain, some of whom have a traumatic brain injury, and using functional MRI to see how they process light compared with those without chronic pain. She says it’s possible that photosensitivity could be a predictor of chronic pain.
Heinricher says her team happened upon this area of research accidentally when they noticed certain cells that facilitate pain responded to a flashlight in a dark lab.
“I was quite surprised,” she says. “If you had asked me this five years ago, I would have said no way.
If green light proves effective in human studies, neurologist Dr. Morris Levin says, he would welcome the treatment. “It is a happy thought. I hope it works,” says Levin, director of the Headache Center at the University of California, San Francisco. “A lot of these other treatments don’t work as well as we’d like, and a lot of them cause side effects.”
Migraine sufferers are “very sensitive to environmental stimuli,” and Levin says the idea of manipulating light to lessen headache severity is a “plausible” approach.
“The problem arises when you try to find exactly what in the environment really stimulates the migraine and what in the environment might be changed without too much trouble that would still be really beneficial,” he says.
Levin says there isn’t enough evidence yet to support green light as a truly beneficial treatment for headache pain.
“It is very intriguing, but it still has a long way to go,” says Dr. Andrew Hershey, who is co-director of the Headache Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
“Trying to do a classic placebo-controlled study to see if one light works or not is likely not doable in this area,” he says, since the patient knows the color of the light.
He says positive results from patients who spend time with just a green light may also relate to them spending less time with irritating light, like the blue glow of computers and phones.
Ibrahim’s patient Ann Jones decided to keep the green light, even though the study is over. She discovered that when she stopped doing the treatment regularly, her migraines reemerged.
“I made a commitment to go back on the green lights daily,” she says. “The very next day I did not have migraine, and for five straight days I didn’t have a migraine.”
Jones says the only downside is finding time to spend in a dark room with just a green light for company.
In a separate clinical trial, researchers at Duke University are trying to see if that problem can be solved through a wearable treatment.
Having a patient sit in a room with green ambient light is not necessarily conducive to normal life,” says Padma Gulur, a professor of anesthesiology, who is leading the Duke study.
Gulur’s NIH-funded study is looking at how different shades of glasses — clear, blue and green — affect postoperative pain and fibromyalgia. She says the early results are encouraging her to pursue larger human studies for multiple conditions.
“It just goes to show the power of our nervous system in how it responds and adapts to different stimuli,” says Gulur.
She says “minimal harm, ease of access and compliance” are all strong cases for seriously considering the feasibility of green light.
“Even if we see 50% of patients benefit from this, then already it becomes something worth trying,” she says.
Duane Lowe is a chiropractor with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Grand Junction, Colorado. He works with patients in chronic pain. After reading some of Ibrahim’s research, Lowe wanted to see if it could help his own patients.
He ordered some green glasses online. “I just gave them to patients to try for a week,” he says. “After a very short period of time, patients were coming back giving very positive reviews.”
So he kept doing it.
He makes sure to tell the patients that this is experimental — no one knows how well glasses work compared with the LED light or how long you need to wear them.
“I didn’t actually have to worry about whether these studies have been done, because the side effects of giving someone green glasses is almost nil,” he says.
Dr. Mohab Ibrahim enjoys the simplicity of the treatment too. “In my opinion, the most ideal drug or therapy is something that’s first safe, effective and affordable,” he says.
*Dr. Mohab Ibrahim is an anesthesiologist with a Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology., and associate professor at the University of Arizona.
Over three hundred years ago Galileo said:
It takes 60+ days to create a new habit NOT 21 days
“The 21-day habit myth began when a plastic surgeon in the 1950s, Dr. Maxwell Maltz, noticed that his patients seemed to acclimatize to their new faces after a minimum period of 21 days.”
“This observation was reported in his famous book, Psycho-Cybernetics, and promptly adopted by self-help guru’s who forgot to inform their followers that the word ‘minimum’ was meaningful.”
“This short time frame made the idea of habit-creation seem more achievable, inspiring and enticing.”
“Yes, you do gain traction over the first few days of starting a new habit, partly from the excitement that creating a new habit provides, as the brain naturally craves novelty. However, and it can take more than 60 days for a new neural pathway to become entrenched and become part of your daily life without expending a lot of effort.”
There are a few reasons why the ’21-days’ habit myth doesn’t hold up to neuroscience.
In creating a new neural pathway you don’t simply ‘over-write’ the previous pathway. Instead:
(“Ask anyone who hasn’t smoked a cigarette for years what if feels like when they’re exposed to a similar situation where they once enjoyed this bad habit. They’ll tell you that it’s as if they stepped back in time to when they used to light up. Why? That neural pathway still exists and is activated in similar situations or contexts.”)
It’s therefore critical to avoid situations where the neural pathway of an old habit can easily be activated to succumb to that old habit.
“Most bad habits, like overeating, sleeping in and drinking too much coffee support the release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Most good habits don’t do so initially as they naturally produce less of a brain ‘high.’”
Some research suggests that eating carbohydrate rich and fatty foods stimulate the release of endogenous opioids (made internally), which lead to a feeling of calmness. This mechanism underpins why we reach for such foods when stressed. Breaking the habit of eating these foods when we’re stressed is extra hard making it important to reduce stress when we’re trying to make good habits ‘stick.’
While you’re establishing your new habit reward yourself with something that also releases dopamine and/or serotonin, albeit in lesser amounts, in conjunction with a new habit. For example:
It is likely that four dietary-related factors act in combination to support habit creation and maintenance.
Horse being wild
Neuroscience demonstrates that such acuity and responsiveness is not an ‘intrinsic’ personality trait, but more of a skill that develops over time and can be worked at. In recent years, fMRI brain scans have shown us what emotional responses look like, how emotions are triggered in the brain and that they can be consciously moderated.
“Emotions arise in the limbic brain’s amygdala, the most primitive part of the brain. Once registered by the amygdala, the brain connects your emotional responses to the current situation to your existing memories, which are stored in the hippocampus. It is then the job of the prefrontal cortex to decide which of these memories are relevant to recall, and what sense to make of your emotions once they have been filtered through the pattern-recognition of your past experience. Based on this, your brain uses a combination of knowledge, and intuitive, emotional wisdom to formulate an interpretation and, when required, devise a course of action and behavior in response to what has happened and been felt.”
The emotional center of our brain can be harnessed by the thinking part.
Here’s one way to tame your emotional horses:
“Working to develop greater emotional awareness and emotional regulation is hard work. But modern neuroscience proves there is plenty that you can do to get better at emotional regulation. Approach your aspiration for improvement as a long-term project, akin to learning a new language. This is because emotional intelligence has so many different aspects to it. It’s perfectly possible, with focused effort, to change your ‘internal landscape’ for the better, using the full spectrum of emotions available to you to enhance your experience of life.”
Calmer but still wild horse
“The end result is that rather than feeling overwhelmed by some emotions, and shut off from others, you can learn to tap into an emotional ‘palate’ in a way that is more helpful and within your control. This will take effort and practice to achieve as although the ‘wild horses’ theory of emotions is somewhat outdated, the idea that emotions ‘come upon us’ contains some truth.”
Henry Wordsworth Longfellow
By Shelly Fan
(We are offering this article in it’s entirety but for those of you who want just the gist read the colored areas we’ve highlighted.)
“I rarely use the words transformative or breakthrough for neuroscience findings. The brain is complex, noisy, chaotic, and often unpredictable. One intriguing result under one condition may soon fail for a majority of others. What’s more, paradigm-shifting research trends often require revolutionary tools. When we’re lucky, those come once a decade.”
“In 2010, the idea that we’d be able to read minds, help paralyzed people walk again, incept memories, or have multi-layered brain atlases was near incomprehensible. Few predicted that deep learning, an AI model loosely inspired by neural processing in the brain, would gain prominence and feed back into decoding the brain. Around 2011, I asked a now-prominent AI researcher if we could automatically detect dying neurons in a microscope image using deep neural nets; we couldn’t get it to work. Today, AI is readily helping read, write, and map the brain.”
“As we cross into the next decade, it pays to reflect on the paradigm shifts that made the 2010s the decade of the brain. Even as a bah humbug skeptic I’m optimistic about the next decade for solving the brain’s mysteries: from genetics and epigenetics to chemical and electrical communications, networks, and cognition, we’ll only get better at understanding and tactfully controlling the supercomputer inside our heads.”
1. Linking Brains to Machines Goes From Fiction to Science
“We’ve covered brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) so many times even my eyes start glazing over. Yet I still remember my jaw dropping as I watched a paralyzed man kick off the 2014 World Cup in a bulky mind-controlled exosuit straight out of Edge of Tomorrow.”
“Flash forward a few years, and scientists have already ditched the exosuit for an implanted neural prosthesis that replaces severed nerves to re-establish communication between the brain’s motor centers and lower limbs.”
“The rise in BCIs owes much to the BrainGate project, which worked tirelessly to decode movement from electrical signals in the motor cortex, allowing paralyzed patients to use a tablet with their minds or operate robotic limbs. Today, prosthetic limbs coated with sensors can feed back into the brain, giving patients mind-controlled movement, sense of touch, and an awareness of where the limb is in space. Similarly, by decoding electrical signals in the auditory or visual cortex, neural implants can synthesize a person’s speech by reconstructing what they’re hearing or re-create images of what they’re seeing—or even of what they’re dreaming.”
“For now, most BCIs—especially those that require surgical implants—are mainly used to give speech or movement back to those with disabilities or decode visual signals. The brain regions that support all these functions are on the surface, making them relatively more accessible and easier to decode.”
“But there’s plenty of interest in using the same technology to target less tangible brain issues, such as depression, OCD, addiction, and other psychiatric disorders that stem from circuits deep within the brain. Several trials using implanted electrodes, for example, have shown dramatic improvement in people suffering from depression that don’t respond to pharmaceutical drugs, but the results vary significantly between individuals.”
“The next decade may see non-invasive ways to manipulate brain activity, such as focused ultrasound, transcranial magnetic or direct current stimulation (TMS/tDCS), and variants of optogenetics. Along with increased understanding of brain networks and dynamics, we may be able to play select neural networks like a piano and realize the dream of treating psychiatric disorders at their root.”
2. The Rise of Massive National Research Programs
“Rarely does one biological research field get such tremendous support from multiple governments. Yet the 2010s saw an explosion in government-backed neuroscience initiatives from the US, EU, and Japan, with China, South Korea, Canada, and Australia in the process of finalizing their plans. These multi-year, multi-million-dollar projects focus on developing new tools to suss out the brain’s inner workings, such as how it learns, how it controls behavior, and how it goes wrong. For some, the final goal is to simulate a working human brain inside a supercomputer, forming an invaluable model for researchers to test out their hypotheses—and maybe act as a blueprint for one day reconstructing all of a person’s neural connections, called the connectome.”
“Even as initial announcements were met with skepticism—what exactly is the project trying to achieve?—the projects allowed something previously unthinkable. The infusion of funding provided a safety blanket to develop new microscopy tools to ever-more-rapidly map the brain, resulting in a toolkit of new fluorescent indicators that track neural activation and map neural circuits. Even rudimentary simulations have generated “virtual epilepsy patients” to help more precisely pinpoint sources of seizures. A visual prosthesis to restore sight, a memory prosthesis to help those with faltering recall, and a push for non-invasive ways to manipulate human brains all stemmed from these megaprojects.”
“Non-profit institutions such as the Allen Institute for Brain Science have also joined the effort, producing map after map at different resolutions of various animal brains. The upcoming years will see individual brain maps pieced together into comprehensive atlases that cover everything from genetics to cognition, transforming our understanding of brain function from paper-based 2D maps into multi-layered Google Maps.”
“In a way, these national programs ushered in the golden age of brain science, bringing talent from other disciplines—engineers, statisticians, physicists, computer scientists—into neuroscience. Early successes will likely drive even more investment in the next decade, especially as findings begin translating into actual therapies for people who don’t respond to traditional mind-targeting drugs. The next decade will likely see innovative new tools that manipulate neural activity more precisely and less-invasively than optogenetics. The rapid rise in the amount of data will also mean that neuroscientists will quickly embrace cloud-storage options for collaborative research and GPUs and more powerful computing cores to process the data.”
3. The Brain-AI-Brain Virtuous Cycle
“First, brain to AI. The physical structure and information flow in the cortex inspired deep learning, the most prominent AI model today. Ideas such as hippocampal replay—the brain’s memory center replays critical events in fast forward during sleep to help consolidate memory—also benefit AI models.”
“In addition, the activation patterns of individual neurons merged with materials science to build “neuromorphic chips,” or processors that function more like the brain, rather than today’s silicon-based chips. Although neuromorphic chips remain mainly an academic curiosity, they have the potential to perform complicated, parallel computations at a fraction of the energy used by processors today. As deep neural nets get ever-more power hungry, neuromorphic chips may present a welcome alternative.”
“In return, AI algorithms that closely model the brain are helping solve long-time mysteries of the brain, such as how the visual cortex processes input. In a way, the complexity and unpredictability of neurobiology is shriveling thanks to these computational advancements.”
“Although crossovers between biomedical research and digital software have long existed—think programs that help with drug design—the match between neuroscience and AI is far stronger and more intimate. As AI becomes more powerful and neuroscientists collaborate outside their field, computational tools will only unveil more intricacies of neural processing, including more intangible aspects such as memory, decision-making, or emotions.”
4. A Mind-Boggling Array of Research Tools
“I talk a bunch about the brain’s electrical activity, but supporting that activity are genes and proteins. Neurons also aren’t a uniform bunch; multiple research groups are piecing together a who’s who of the brain’s neural parts and their individual characteristics.”
“Although invented in the late 2000s, technologies such as optogenetics and single-cell RNA sequencing were widely adopted by the neuroscience community in the 2010s. Optogenetics allows researchers to control neurons with light, even in freely moving animals going about their lives. Add to that a whole list of rainbow-colored proteins to tag active cells, and it’s possible to implant memories. Single-cell RNA sequencing is the queen bee of deciphering a cell’s identity, allowing scientists to understand the genetic expression profile of any given neuron. This tech is instrumental in figuring out the neuron populations that make up a brain at any point in time—infancy, youth, aging.”
Humans are not the only mammal with a drive to overeat high-calorie foods.
In evolutionary terms, when an animal finds a food source high in nutrients, it makes sense to eat as much as possible; in the wild, starvation is an ever-present danger. ( I’m alert to the ever-present danger of starvation )
My doctors told me to stop eating sugar and gluten (that’s another story) It’s REALLY challenging to find foods that are not packed with sugar and/or fat . . . that I “crave”. Energy-dense foods are every where I look and I (along with other mammals) have evolved to find these types of food delicious — and food companies know it.
As new study co-author Prof. Thomas Kash, Ph.D., points out, “There’s just so much calorically dense food available all the time now, and we haven’t yet lost this wiring that influences us to eat as much food as possible.”
Recently, researchers from the University of North Carolina Health Care in Chapel Hill looked at this phenomenon in rodents’ brains. Researchers investigated the mechanisms involved in homeostatic feeding, but did not find successful interventions. More recently scientists have looked to hedonic feeding for answers.
Research has demonstrated that nociceptin receptors (nociceptin is a peptide with 17 amino acids) make little difference to homeostatic feeding, but that they may influence hedonic feeding.
Prof. Kash and team engineered mice to produce fluorescent nociceptin. This made it easier to see the cells involved in nociceptin circuits.
Many circuits in the brain utilize nociceptin, but the researchers identified one particular circuit in the amygdala that lit up when the mice binged on energy-dense foods. This circuit has projections to other parts of the brain that help regulate feeding. It originates in the central nucleus of the amygdala, a part of the brain that plays a vital role in an animal’s response to emotional stimuli.
The authors believe that “this is the first study to ascribe specific hedonic feeding actions to a subpopulation of [central amygdala] neurons.”
In follow-up experiments, the scientists deleted around half of the neurons that produce nociceptin in the circuit. They found that this reduced levels of binge eating.
They gave the mice access to standard chow and high-calorie food, alternatively. With these neurons silenced, the mice significantly reduced their intake of high-calorie food and resisted diet-induced obesity. Their consumption of standard chow remained consistent.
“Our study is one of the first to describe how the brain’s emotional center contributes to eating for pleasure,” explains first study author J. Andrew Hardaway, Ph.D.
Shame lives on in the brain.
“Hearing a recording of one’s own voice can be a cringe-worthy experience. Scientists took advantage of that uncomfortable truth, turning up the notch with a karaoke experiment. The goal was to ignite feelings of embarrassment and shame — all in the good name of helpful sleep science.”
People with insomnia have a hard time shedding the distress caused by bad emotional experiences.
That suffering can last weeks — even years — and the researchers wanted to find out exactly why. They had two major questions: What is it about sleep that underlies the problem, and what brain circuits are involved?
So the researchers set out to cause some embarrassment. “To do this, 29 people performed karaoke sessions that were recorded. The catch was that they had to wear headphones that muffled out the sound of their own voice — that way, the scientists could impede pitch correction and promote out-of-tune singing. The participants were not diagnosed with any psychiatric disorders, and they covered a wide range of experiences with insomnia; some had never experienced it, while others were very familiar.”
“Scientists used karaoke to create distressing memories for study participants.
The participants later heard the recordings of their singing while an fMRI machine scanned their brains. They were also exposed to a scent intended to boost their memory of listening to the recordings the next time they smelled it.”
Subsequently, the participants spent the night in the lab hooked up to electroencephalogram monitors. While they slept, the scientists wafted in their trigger smell, curious to see whether it would disrupt their sleep.
“When the participants were brain scanned and exposed to the same song recordings the next morning, a trend emerged: The amygdalae of people who experienced fewer interruptions during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep reacted less strongly than they did the first time around. They felt less embarrassed than they did before. Meanwhile, the people who had fragmented REM sleep ended up feeling more embarrassed than they did on the first go.”
“As for the smells, when compared to the good REM sleepers and control subjects (people in the experiment who were not exposed to a smell), the embarrassment felt by the poor REM sleepers was exacerbated by experiencing the scent.”
“Processing emotional memories requires synaptic connections to change — some have to be weakened, others strengthened. A chemical called noradrenaline strongly affects the balance between this weakening and strengthening. REM, van Someren explains, is a “very special state” because it is the “only state we have that provides a ‘time-out’ from noradrenaline.”
“People with very restless REM sleep may never enjoy this state anymore. “It is likely that this has repercussions for the balance between weakening and strengthening of synapses, and thus affects overnight emotion regulation.”
“That state of existence describes the profile of people with insomnia, which van Someren hopes his research can help. He says that instead of focusing on examining sleep-regulating systems in the brain that have been derailed, his team’s study suggests that the better way to help insomniacs is to look for mechanisms in circuits that regulate emotional memory.”
“We also hope that people start to realize that sleep is not always ‘the more the better,’ but that a maladaptive kind of sleep [one with bad REM] can exist,” he explains.
A simple lack of confidence may present the biggest barrier – particularly for older learners, past retirement, who may have already started to fear a more general cognitive decline.
“In one (deliberately tedious) study, Touron’s participants had to compare a reference table of word pairings (like ‘dog’ and ‘table’) with a second list, and then identify which words had not appeared in the original table. The word pairings were not difficult to learn, and by the end most people – of all ages – would have been able recite them. But the older adults – aged 60 and over – were more reluctant to rely on their memory, preferring instead to laboriously cross-reference the two tables, even though it took significantly more time. For some reason, they weren’t confident that they had learnt the pairs accurately – and so took the more cautious, but time-consuming, strategy.”
“In another experiment, the participants had to work through a list of calculations, with many of the sums appearing repeatedly through the list. The younger participants soon started to recall their previous answers, while the older subjects instead decided to perform the calculations from scratch each time. Again, this did not seem to reflect an actual hole in their memory – many could remember their answers, if they had to, but had simply chosen not to. “We do see some adults who come into the lab and who never shift to using their memory,” says Touron. “They say they know the information, they just prefer not to rely on it.”’
“By asking her participants to keep detailed diaries of their routine, Touron has shown this habit of “memory avoidance” may limit their cognitive performance in many everyday activities. Older people may be more likely to rely on GPS when driving, for instance – even if they remember the route – or they may follow a recipe line by line, rather than attempting to recall the steps.”
“Eventually, that lack of confidence may become a self-fulfilling prophecy – as your memory skills slowly decline through lack of use.”
“Park first divided her 200 participants into groups and assigned them to a programme of different activities for 15 hours a week for three months. Some were offered the opportunity to learn new skills – quilting, digital photography, or both – that would challenge their long-term memory and attention as they followed complex instructions. Others were given more passive tasks, such as listening to classical music or completing crossword puzzles, or social activities – such as field trips to local sites of interest. At the beginning and the end of the three months, Parks also gave the participants a memory test.”
“Of all the participants, only the subjects learning the quilting or the photography enjoyed a significant improvement – with 76% of the photographers showing a higher score at the second memory test, for instance. A later brain scan found that this seemed to be reflected in lasting changes to circuits in the medial frontal, lateral temporal, and parietal cortex – areas associated with attention and concentration.”
“Although the specific activities that Park chose – photography or quilting – may not appeal to everyone, she suspects the same benefits could emerge from many other hobbies. The essential point is to choose something that is unfamiliar, and which requires prolonged and active mental engagement as you cultivate a new set of behaviours.”
The Secret to Motivation eludes me – that’s obvious from all the research on motivation we’ve posted! I probably have a bit of attention deficit since I tend to swing wildly from interest to interest. Put that together with my reverence for octopuses I couldn’t resist sharing it with you. (jw)
An Italian scientist, Vittorrio Erspamer found octopamine in the salivary glands of the octopus, hence its name.
Octopamine is related to the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. It comes from the amino acid Tyramine, which can be found in a wide array of foods such as liver and tomatoes. You can get it in supplements. Isolated, it is a stimulant and also burns fat.
However it may be that Octopamine prevents the breakdown of protein for energy, rather promoting fat burning for energy.
Octopamine has been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) because of its stimulatory properties. If you are sensitive to stimulants, or have high blood pressure, or a heart condition, don’t use Octopamine.
Almost everyone has that one food craving that can tempt them to consume more than they planned. Experts have revealed the one thing that all addictive food has in common – they all contain a ratio of two parts carbohydrate to one part fat – the same ratio as breast milk.
Researchers from the University of Michigan took 120 students, offered them a choice of 35 different foods, and asked them to fill in the Yale Food Addiction Scale, a measure of how addictive you find a particular food. The foods were then ranked from 1 to 35 by the students.
Experts from The Fast 800 programme, a weight loss plan devised by Micheal Mosely, have uncovered that, despite appearing to have little in common, each of the foods has approximately 2g carbs to 1g fat – the exact same ratio of fat to carbohydrate in human breast milk.
The similarity between favorite addictive food:
Breast milk is one of the very few natural foods that contains high amounts of fat and carbs all mixed together.
NOW HEAR THIS!
This tickling does not lead to spastic body movements and laughter. It’s Ear tickling.
Researchers ‘tickled’ participants’ ears with a tiny electric current to influence the nervous system and slow down some of the effects of aging.
Oops, wrong kind of tickle
It is a painless procedure where custom-made clip electrodes are placed on a part of the ear called the tragus. The therapy, known as transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation, sends tiny currents of electricity into the ear that travel down to the body’s nervous system. There’s no pain, just a slight tingling which is referred to as “tickling”.
The autonomic nervous system controls bodily functions that don’t require thought, such as breathing, digestion, heart rate and blood pressure.
Within the autonomic nervous system, there are two branches: parasympathetic (for resting activity) and sympathetic (for stress activity). The two branches work together to allow healthy levels of bodily activity.
Researchers hoped the therapy would improve the balance of
the autonomic nervous system.
After 15 minutes of daily therapy for two weeks, they brought the participants – 26 people over the age of 55 back into the lab and measured factors such as heart rate and blood pressure to judge the success rate of their trial.
The next step is to take the study to a larger group to get a more comprehensive look at the benefits of tickle therapy.
Are you up for a tickle?
Susan Deuchars, lead author on the study and director of research at the University of Leeds’ School of Biomedical Sciences
The Research distilled:
The research team found that there are specific groups of neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) of a rat’s brain – the region most associated with long-term memory. These neurons develop codes to help store relevant, general information from multiple experiences while, over time, losing the more irrelevant, minor details unique to each experience.
“Memories of recent experiences are rich in incidental detail but, with time, the brain is thought to extract important information that is common across various past experiences,”
“Rats were given two experiences with an interval between each: one involving a light and tone stimulus, and the other involving a physical stimulus. This gave them two memories that shared a common stimulus relationship. The scientists then tracked the neuron activity in the animals’ brains from the first day of learning to four weeks following their experiences.“This experiment revealed that groups of neurons in the mPFC initially encode both the unique and shared features of the stimuli in a similar way,” says first author Mark Morrissey. “However, over the course of a month, the coding becomes more sensitive to the shared features and less sensitive to the unique features, which become lost.”
Generalizable knowledge outweighs incidental details in prefrontal ensemble code over time
Memories for recent experiences are rich in incidental detail, but with time the brain is thought to extract latent rules and structures common across past experiences. We show that over weeks following the acquisition of two distinct associative memories, neuron firing in the rat prelimbic prefrontal cortex (mPFC) became less selective for perceptual features unique to each association and, with an apparently different time-course, became more selective for common relational features. We further found that during exposure to a novel experimental context, memory expression and neuron selectivity for relational features immediately generalized to the new situation. These neural patterns offer a window into the network-level processes by which the mPFC develops a knowledge structure of the world that can be adaptively applied to new experiences.
“Generalizable knowledge outweighs incidental details in prefrontal ensemble code over time” by Mark D Morrissey, Nathan Insel, and Kaori Takehara-Nishiuchi eLife. Published online February 14 2017 doi:10.7554/eLife.22177
It’s the season for parties, get-togethers and crowds. Have you ever had trouble putting background noise in the background and focusing on the conversation that is in front of you?
The Imperial College London research experiment
Fourteen participants listened to two competing conversations. Electrodes were fitted to the participants’ heads and connected to a computer, which relayed the brain readings in the auditory brainstem. Algorithms devised by the team then decoded the information gathered by the electrodes.
“When the participants chose to focus on one conversation above the other, neurons in the auditory brainstem responded more to the pitch of the voice that they listened to rather than to the pitch of the voice that they ignored. This suggests that an important aspect of selective attention occurs in the auditory brainstem and the neural signal is then relayed to the auditory cortex, where higher level processing of auditory information occurs.”
Understanding this process in more detail could, for example, help engineers to build better hearing aids that are more adept at filtering out background noise for users, which is currently a challenge for those with hearing impairments in noisy places.
Earlier this year I decided to eliminate sugar, hoping to reduce the inflammatory response that is common to fibromyalgia (and many other chronic conditions). I LOVE sugar and didn’t want to banish it from my life so decided to use it as a subject in my paintings.
I’ve always maintained my brain is hardwired to want sweets.
Now I’m vindicated but also concerned enough to continue using my hand to paint rather than my mouth to eat. Here’s why:
“On an evolutionary basis, our primitive ancestors were scavengers. Sugary foods are excellent sources of energy, so we have evolved to find sweet foods particularly pleasurable. Foods with unpleasant, bitter and sour tastes can be unripe, poisonous or rotting — causing sickness.”
“To maximize our survival as a species, we have an innate brain system that makes us like sweet foods since they’re a great source of energy to fuel our bodies.”
“When we eat sweet foods the brain’s reward system — called the mesolimbic dopamine system — gets activated. Dopamine is a brain chemical released by neurons and can signal that an event was positive. When the reward system fires, it reinforces behaviours — making it more likely for us to carry out these actions again.”
“Our environment today is abundant with sweet, energy rich foods. We no longer have to forage for these special sugary foods — they are available everywhere. Unfortunately, our brain is still functionally very similar to our ancestors, and it really likes sugar. So what happens in the brain when we excessively consume sugar?”
“The brain continuously remodels and rewires itself through a process called neuroplasticity. This rewiring can happen in the reward system. Repeated activation of the reward pathway by drugs or by eating lots of sugary foods causes the brain to adapt to frequent stimulation, leading to a sort of tolerance.”
“In the case of sweet foods, this means we need to eat more to get the same rewarding feeling — a classic feature of addiction.”
“Regardless of our need for food to power our bodies, many people experience food cravings, particularly when stressed, hungry or just faced with an alluring display of cakes in a coffee shop.”
“To resist cravings, we need to inhibit our natural response to indulge in these tasty foods. A network of inhibitory neurons is critical for controlling behavior. These neurons are concentrated in the prefrontal cortex — a key area of the brain involved in decision-making, impulse control and delaying gratification.
“Importantly, this shows that what we eat can influence our ability to resist temptations and may underlie why diet changes are so difficult for people.”
“A recent study asked people to rate how much they wanted to eat high-calorie snack foods when they were feeling hungry versus when they had recently eaten. The people who regularly ate a high-fat, high-sugar diet rated their cravings for snack foods higher even when they weren’t hungry.”
Another brain area affected by high sugar diets is the hippocampus — a key memory centre.
“Research shows that rats eating high-sugar diets were less able to remember whether they had previously seen objects in specific locations before.”
“The World Health Organization advises that we limit our intake of added sugars to five per cent of our daily calorie intake, which is 25g (six teaspoons).”
“While it’s not easy to break habits like always eating dessert or making your coffee a double-double, your brain will thank you for making positive steps.”
“The first step is often the hardest. These diet changes can often get easier along the way.”
Fruit flies have been buzzing around my kitchen since I started recycling food waste for the environment. Yes, yes, I’m using a special container provided by the city but those pesky flies still try to get in. I can testify to their perseverance . . . and their ability to evade my swats.
Perseverance and grit are important to work toward goals. How do you stay motivated to do this? A team of researchers led by Technical University of Munich scientists have found one answer in the brain of a fruit fly. Yup, fruit flies are ambitious and they can teach me something about staying with a task.
The researchers set up the fruit flies so they would go after fruit that smelled, but was kept out of reach, while their little legs ran on balls which measured how fast they were running – how much effort they were making. The experiment showed that hungry fruit flies would continue increasing their speed, until they ran up to nine meters per minute. Fruit flies who had eaten would stop more quickly than the hungry flies.
“A Neural Circuit Arbitrates between Persistence and Withdrawal in Hungry Drosophila”. Sercan Sayin, Jean-Francois De Backer, K.P. Siju, Marina E. Wosniack, Laurence P. Lewis, Lisa-Marie Frisch, Benedikt Gansen, Philipp Schlegel, Amelia Edmondson-Stait, Nadiya Sharifi, Corey B. Fisher, Steven A. Calle-Schuler, J. Scott Lauritzen, Davi D. Bock, Marta Costa, Gregory S.X.E. Jefferis, Julijana Gjorgjieva, Ilona C. Grunwald Kadow.