Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Old Year's Day

Well, it has arrived, the last day in the year 2013, also known as New Year's Eve or Saint Sylvester's Day. It ushers in the next, new year. Growing up I always thought it strange that it didn't happen at the same time around the world. For example, the island nations of Samoa and Kiribati are the first to let the old year slip away while Honolulu, Hawaii is among the last places. What are doing to say farewell to this year? The way people do this can be all over the board from going to bed early and sleeping the new year in, to celebrating until midnight, or even staying up into the wee small hours of the new year. My preference is to low-key it with a few close friends, thinking about what happened over the last 12 months and imagining what may occur over the upcoming 12 months. Whatever you do, be happy and grateful. My brain is, for my having lived through another year.

Monday, December 30, 2013

"Molecular" Communication

There’s electromagnetic communication (children and pets are reportedly very sensitive to this); and pheromone communication within the same species (insects for long-range signaling, rats, humans); and now there is new information about molecular communication. This method will not replace electromagnetic waves, which transmit the bulk of data in the modern world, but there are some areas where conventional communications systems are not particularly well-adapted. These areas can include pipelines, tunnels, deep underground structures, and inside the human body. Researchers at the University of Warwick in the UK and the York University in Canada have developed the capability to transform any generic message into binary signals, which in turn is 'programmed' into evaporated alcohol molecules to demonstrate the potential of molecular communications. Dr. Weisi Guo, University of Warwick, said: "Imagine sending a detailed message using perfume―it sounds like something from a spy thriller novel, but in reality it is an incredibly simple way to communicate.” Their results are published in the open access journal PLOS ONE. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

DNA and a Hidden Code?

DNA has been referred to as the “mystery substance” that impacts who you are (in comparison to your biological relatives). Scientists at the University of Washington believe they have discovered that DNA is really an incredibly powerful information storage device and much more complex than originally believed. In fact, they believe it contains a second hidden code. The genetic code uses a 64-letter alphabet called codons. Some codons, “duons,” can have two meanings, one related to protein sequence, and one related to gene control. This means that “many DNA changes that appear to alter protein sequences may actually cause disease by disrupting gene control programs or even both mechanisms simultaneously,” according to a researcher.  It appears that a secret language in the DNA itself may be a contributor to how "nature" is expressed. Sounds a bit like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code! No wonder every individual, every brain, is unique.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Sleep Deprivation #7

According to an article published in Nature Neuroscience, studies at the University of California-Berkeley have linked adequate deep sleep to a good memory. Researchers gave 18 college-aged participants and 15 senior participants a series of memory tests, monitored participants' sleep using an electgroencephalogram (EEG) machine, and then tests the participants next morning on the memory tests. Before going to sleep all the participants scored similarly on the test. It was a different story the next morning, however. The older participants were more than 50% less accurate on the memory tests after sleeping. Study co-author Bryce Mander said that analysis showed the differences were not due to changes in memory capacity but to differences in sleep quality. The EEG readings revealed that the seniors got only about 1/4th as much deep sleep as the younger participants. Researchers concluded that the forgetfulness that is often linked with aging may actually be caused by a lack of deep sleep. The differences in memory was attributed to the amount of high-quality deep sleep that the two groups of participants were able to achieve. You might want to pay close attention to this as "sleep" often seems to suffer during holiday seasons . . .

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Boxing Day

Growing up in a British Commonwealth Country, we always celebrated boxing day. It was a federal holiday in Canada, although the exact etymology of the term "boxing day" is unclear. A ‘Christmas Box’ in Britain was a common name for a Christmas present. In older English tradition, employers expected their servants to “serve” on Christmas day. The servants were allowed to take off December 26th however, to visit their own families. The employers would give each servant a Christmas box containing, bonuses and gifts, and often leftover food items. It may also be connected to the “Feast of Stephen.” Donation boxes were placed in churches where parishioners deposited coins for the poor. These boxes were opened and the contents distributed on December 26, the Feast of St. Stephen. During the late 18th century, lords and ladies of the manor would “box up” food and gift items and deliver then to tenants who worked and lived on their lands. When I moved to the United States it seemed that few if any had heard of Boxing Day. I still give some gifts on Boxing Day in remembrance of a cultural difference from my native land. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Happy December 25th!

Today is a widely observed by millions around the world. For some it is an annual commemoration of the birth of the Christ child. For others it is a civil holiday, celebrated by an increasing number of non-Christians. Some of you may be celebrating in traditional style. Others of you may not. Many have the day off work. Other must be at work. Some are able to be with family. Again, others are not. As a child growing up in Canada, we would gather ‘round the radio to hear the King’s Speech (or the Queen’s Speech), after which we would open presents, eat a special dinner served on dishes reserved for special occasions, and have food treats such as Halva and fruit cake. Often the afternoon would again find us grouped around the radio listening to “A Christmas Carol” or Perry Como. It was a “must” to think of at least one thing for which we were grateful. It turned into a tradition that I still honor. Take a moment today to think of at least one thing for which you are grateful. You may not have everything you would wish for; you do have something for which to be grateful. Happiness is a choice. Today, hang out with happy people because happiness seems to rub off on each other. Whatever your style, whatever you do, whomever you are with, my wish is that you have a happy, rewarding, and fulfilling day. I am low-keying it myself, surrounded by a very small circle of family-of-choice…

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Memories . . .

“‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thru the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse …” Do you recall that verse attributed to Clement Clarke Moore? I’m quite sure there was usually at least one mouse in our basement. Heaven knows my mother was always putting out mouse traps. In my childhood home, it was always made very clear that Santa Clause was a concept, not a real person, albeit that the concept was likely based on a real person. Nevertheless, that never seemed to diminish the magic, especially during the years we lived amidst a great deal of snow! Relatives on both sides of my family tree often went to late evening or mid-night community or church service, listening to the music of the season, drinking in the colorful lights and candles, and hearing once again the familiar stories and poems. It was also a time of reflection. Every year some would be missing from the group, their having died during the past twelve months. Sometimes we would put a place-card at the table in their honor or at least reminisce about them, being reminded that we can choose to carry each in our hearts and minds. Good memories. “…and to all a good night.” 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Infrasounds, #3

The roar of a tiger contains audible sounds and infrasounds of 18 Hz and lower—which can penetrate solid objects like walls and even pass through mountains. Its prey feels the infrasounds in addition to the threatening roar—usually the last thing the victim hears—which can reach 114 decibels a few feet away (25 times as loud as a gas lawn mower). Humans can feel the tiger’s roar, a sensation that can cause momentary paralysis, even in trainers who have worked with tigers for years. Infrasounds have been linked to spooky events, as well. Mysteriously snuffed out candles, weird sensations and shivers down the spine may be due to infrasound and may produce a range of bizarre effects in humans including anxiety, sorrow, chills, feeling uneasy, feelings of revulsion or fear, or making people feel vaguely odd or that events are occurring. It’s the holiday season. Find yourself an organ concert and listen to the music of the season. Revel in the infrasounds from the very low pedal pipes on a huge pipe organ! Pay attention to what you "feel" versus what you "hear."

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Infrasounds, #2

Infrasounds are prevalent among creatures in nature, too. Hippopotamuses, alligators, and giraffes reportedly use infrasound to communicate over distances—perhaps hundreds of miles in the case of whales and elephants. Sumatran Rhinoceros produce infrasounds as low as 3 Hz with similarities to the song of the humpback whale. Recent research by Jon Hagstrum of the US Geological Survey suggests that homing pigeons use low frequency infrasound to navigate. Elephants trumpet at 15-35 Hz and as loud as 117 decibels, the sound traveling distances up to six miles and used to coordinate the movement of herds and allow mating elephants to find each other. Elephants also produce infrasound waves that travel through solid ground and are sensed by other herds using their feet, although separated by hundreds of miles. Typically, you can feel and hear your cat purr because the purr of felines is reported to cover a range of 20 Hz to 50 Hz. And then there is the roar of the tiger. More on that tomorrow.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Infrasounds, #1

You probably already know that the normal lower limit of adult human hearing is 20 Hz (Hertz) or cycles per second. Enter Infrasounds: low-frequency sounds, lower than the normal limit of human hearing, which have a very long wave that goes between particles and molecules rather than bouncing off of them. High-intensity infrasounds extend in the megahertz range and well beyond but their frequency level is below 20 Hz so you can feel but not hear them. Sometimes you can hear part of the sound and feel the rest. Sometimes you can only feel the sound. Infrasound can be generated by sonic booms, explosions (both chemical and nuclear), machinery such as diesel engines, trains, planes flying overhead, large-scale subwoofer loudspeakers (e.g., rotary woofers), wind turbines, specially designed mechanical transducers such as industrial vibration tables, and very low pedal pipes on a huge pipe organ. Infrasounds can result naturally from surf, avalanches, earthquakes, volcanoes, waterfalls, calving of icebergs, meteors, lightning, severe weather, and etc.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Long QT Syndrome

Speaking of loud sounds and the potentially deleterious impact they can have on brain and body, have you heard of the Long QT Syndrome? It is a very rare condition in which the electrical recovery of the heart after each beat takes longer than usual, the rhythm becomes abnormal, and insufficient blood is pumped to the brain. Sometimes the individuals recover; sometimes they do not. Estimates are that Long QT Syndrome contributes to about 3,000 deaths per year in the US. According to the Better Health Channel (see link below), this is a potentially life-threatening disorder. An event can be triggered by:

  • Being startled by a loud noise, such as a horn, ringing telephone or alarm clock
  • Exams, tests or other stressful situations
  • Anger or crying
  • Exercise.
There's often quite a bit of loud sounds during the holiday season. You might want to start carrying some ear plugs in your pocket. Use them to protect yourself.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Loud Sounds, Brain, and Heart

As a person with an auditory sensory preference, I’ve carried ear plugs with me for years, wearing them on airline flights, at concerts and rodeos, and you name it. The noise-cancelling music plugs I use, thanks to recommendations by a good friend, still allow me to “hear” but take the sound level down about 20 decibels. Research has validated my choice. Long-term exposure to noise is believed to raises the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline in the body. And, high levels of stress hormones have been linked to high blood pressure, heart failure, strokes, and immune problems. A study published in the European Heart Journal reported that males exposed to prolonged noise had a 50% higher risk of heart attack; women almost 300% higher risk. Your choices can make a difference. Use ear plugs whenever possible in noisy situations. Keep the volume only as loud as you need it to hear clearly on cellphones and headphones. Select a less noisy restaurant or a walk in the park over one near a busy street. Spent a few minutes every day in silence, relaxing, and focusing on your breathing. Take care of your ears—and, by extension, your brain and your heart.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Plasticity Post Brain Injury

The brain is heavily interconnected with neuron pathways. According to life scientists from UCLA and Sydney Australia’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research, you can get from any neuron in the brain to any other neuron via about six synaptic connections. New research has revealed that when the hippocampus, the brain’s primary learning and memory center, is damaged, complex new neural circuits arise to compensate for the lost function. And these circuits can be some distance from the hippocampus. In the prefrontal cortex, for example. Their breakthrough discovery, the first demonstration of such neural-circuit plasticity, could potentially help scientists develop new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and other conditions involving damage to the brain.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Your Avatar

According to Wikipedia, an avatar (usually translated from Sanskrit as incarnation) is the graphical representation of the user or the user’s alter ego or character. It may take a three-dimensional form as in games or virtual worlds ... Studies at the University of Michigan showed that when people create and modify their virtual reality avatars, the hardships faced by their alter egos can influence how they perceive virtual environments. For example, Sangseok You, a doctoral student in the school of information at the University of Michigan, reported that participants who saw that a backpack was attached to an avatar that they had created overestimated the heights of virtual hills, just as people in real life tend to overestimate heights and distances while carrying extra weight. “You exert more of your agency through an avatar when you design it yourself," said S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, Penn State, who worked with You. "Your identity mixes in with the identity of that avatar and, as a result, your visual perception of the virtual environment is colored by the physical resources of your avatar." The study may help trainers and game developers design virtual reality exercises and games that are more realistic and more immersive¾because "You are your avatar when it is customized."

Monday, December 16, 2013

Measuring Em Energy of Brain Bleeding

UC Berkeley researchers have developed a device that uses wireless signals to provide real-time, non-invasive diagnoses of brain swelling or bleeding. The device’s diagnoses for the brain trauma patients in the study matched the results obtained from conventional computerized tomography (CT) scans. Because fluid conducts electricity differently than brain tissue, it is possible to measure changes in electromagnetic properties. The tests also revealed some insights into the aging brain. With increased age, the average electromagnetic transmission signature of a normal human brain changes and approaches that of younger patients with a severe medical condition of hematoma in the brain. For brain hematomas, internal bleeding causes the buildup of blood in specific regions of the brain. For brain edemas, on the other hand, swelling results from an increase in fluid in the tissue.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Brain Perception of Silhouettes

Some of you know that I enjoy showing brain-perception puzzles at some of my seminars (e.g., facial shapes hidden among the branches of a tree). Some brains see the tree first, others notice the faces first. Some brains see most of the faces; others don’t. The results of a new study by Jay Sanguinetti, a doctoral student at the University of Arizona, challenges currently accepted models, in place for a century, about how the brain processes visual information. He discovered that the brains perceives objects in everyday life that its owner may not be consciously aware of. He showed participants a set of black silhouettes. Some contained meaningful, real-world objects hidden in the white spaces on the outsides and some did not. Meantime, the brainwaves of the participants were being monitored with an electroencephalogram, or EEG, while they viewed the objects. Surprisingly, participants’ brainwaves showed that even if a person never consciously recognized the shapes on the outside of the image, their brains still processed those shapes to the level of understanding their meaning.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

3D Neuron Model

According to Kurzweil News, the first 3D-printed neuron has been created by neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd of Yale University in collaboration with the Yale Center for Engineering Innovation and Design. “Brain microcircuits have a very complicated 3D architecture,” said Shepherd, a professor of neurobiology at the Yale School of Medicine and author of The Synaptic Organization of the Brain, a classic in the literature of neurobiology. It’s rather amazing to look at a picture of this plastic 3D-neuron replica, thousands of times larger than it is in real life, and know that there are millions and billions of them diligently working 24-7 to keep your brain and body going.


Friday, December 13, 2013

Mentoring and Learning

Researchers from the Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada compared the potential impact on learning between groups of participants who either observed one teacher only or who observed five teachers. The participants were asked to learn new skills (digital photo editing and knot-tying) and then pass on those new skills to the next “generation” of participants. There were some interesting results. For example participants who were given greater access to teachers (role models) accumulated significantly more skill than those with less access to teachers. Within ten “generations,” each member of the group with multiple mentors had stronger skills than did participants who were limited to a single mentor. Those with greater access to teachers also retained their skills much longer than groups who began with less access to mentors, sustaining higher levels of “cultural knowledge” over multiple generations. According to the researchers, the study has important implications for several areas, from skills development and education to protecting endangered languages and cultural practices.
Michael Muthukrishna et al., Sociality influences cultural complexity, Proceedings of the Royal Academy: Biological Sciences, 2013, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.2511 (open access)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Stuttering and the Brain #2

Producing speech utilizes several portions of the human brain. It is believed that the Basal Ganglia actually controls speech. Wernicke’s area in the left temporal lobe tells you which word you want to say. Then Broca’s area in the left frontal lobe actually forms the word, while the Striatum times and initiates speech, coordinating the output with the mouth, tongue, and throat. Pretty complex. There is growing evidence that stuttering has a neurological base rather than an emotional base as has often been assumed. It may involve a miscommunication between speech centers in the brain (such as the striatum, a major input station of the brain’s basal ganglia system\) and the mouth and tongue. Work by Gerald A. Maguire MD of UC Irvine, reportedly has led him to believe that stuttering may involve bombardment of the striatum with too much dopamine (as opposed to Parkinson’s disease that involves a loss of dopamine to the striatum) and some medications are being trialed. You may find the CNN youtube clip interesting.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Stuttering and the Brain #1

Speech is a terrifying complex process. No surprise that some brains have difficulty doing this smoothly. Remember the movie The King’s Speech? Most people have a least one friend who stutters or have heard about stutterers such as Winston Churchill or James Earl Jones. Although stuttering continues to be somewhat of a medical mystery, some interesting information is emerging. First, it is a physical condition whereby speech is interrupted, but only communicative speech to others. If you’re talking to yourself, apparently you don’t stutter. It may run in families, too. About 70% of stutterers show some familial tendency. While stress can exacerbate stuttering in someone who has the trait, it doesn’t cause it. This can make it tough on a child whose peers make fun of his or her speech difficulties. Excitement and passion about the topic under discussion can also increase the stutter. Most stuttering begins between the ages of two and five. Someone recently sent me a youtube of an interview with Annie Glenn, Astronaut John Glenn’s wife, related to her history of stuttering and the HCRI therapy that helped her reduce the incidence.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Stiff-Person Syndrome Part 5 of 5

This year marks the 30th anniversary of NORD and the Orphan Drug Act. Passed in 1983, the Orphan Drug Act was designed to stimulate the development of products to treat rare diseases and conditions. For drugs, a disease or condition is considered rare if it affects less than 200,000 persons in the United States. For medical devices, a disease or condition is considered rare when it occurs so infrequently in the US that there is no reasonable expectation that a medical device for such disease or condition will be developed without assistance. According to the National Institutes of Health, there are about 6,800 rare diseases and conditions. In total, nearly 30 million Americans (maybe one in ten) suffer from at least one rare disease; a rare disease such as Stiff-Person Syndrome or SPS. In February of 2014, Shane James is planning to run 28 marathons in 28 days in Run To Live Tasmania. Starting in Burnie, heading down the east coast to Hobart, then back up on the west coast and cruising back to Burnie, runners and riders alike are welcome to join the “28 in 28 run” for any distance they wish. Shane hopes to accomplish two specific goals by this endeavor: raise awareness of Stiff-Person Syndrome or SPS and other rare disorders and raise money for a couple of non-profit agencies:

USA:  NORD, the National Organization for Rare Disorders (www.rarediseases.org)
Australia: Steve Waugh Foundation (www.stevewaughfoundation.com.au)

Monday, December 9, 2013

Stiff-Person Syndrome Part 4 of 5

“How could running help people with SPS feel better?” is a common question. Your brain contains a sophisticated, internal pharmacy. Physical exercise triggers the brain’s own personal pharmacy to release a number of endogenous or internal chemicals that flood the brain and spinal cord. Endorphins, natural brain-body opiates, are more powerful than human-made exogenous (outside the body) substances. Adrenalin may be released by the challenge and exhilaration of running, which not only provides a boost of energy but also triggers the release of dopamine, the “feel-better” brain chemical. Other brain chemicals such as serotonin may be released as well. In combination, this cocktail of natural brain-body “medications” helps the individual feel better. Diagnosed with Stiff-Person Syndrome in 2007, this is what Shane James does when he runs. And yes, it helps him feel better. You, too, have your own internal pharmacy. Think of yourself as the pharmacist who releases drugs and other chemicals for use in your brain and body. You “release” these based on your lifestyle, behaviors, mindset, thoughts, and a whole host of other factors such as what you eat and drink and how much you sleep. . .

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Stiff-Person Syndrome Part 3 of 5

Stiff-Person Syndrome, a very rare condition. So what is known about? Scientists don’t yet understand what causes SPS but research indicates that it is the result of an autoimmune response gone awry in the brain and spinal cord. It may begin very subtly during a period of emotional stress. SPS is often misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, psychosomatic illness, or anxiety and phobia. Studies have confirmed that it is typically characterized by a high titer of anti-GAD (glutamic acid decarboxylase) antibodies. While the absence of antibodies in the serum does not rule out SPS, the presence of anti-GAD autoantibodies strongly supports that diagnosis (99% specific by immunocytochemistry). What isn’t known for sure is whether the antibodies have a causative role or are the result of another process. Interestingly, SPS has not been described in members of the same family and there is no known genetic predisposition. Stiff-person syndrome is considered by many researchers to be a spectrum of disease ranging from the involvement of just one area of the body to a widespread, rapidly progressive form that also includes involvement of the brain stem and spinal cord.  Shane, a man I met on a recent airline flight to Australia, who has been diagnosed with SPS, is learning how to manage the pain through his own rehabilitation program. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Stiff-Person Syndrome Part 2 of 5

Although the specific prevalence of Stiff-Person Syndrome or SPS is unknown, it may occur in fewer than 1 in 1,000,000 persons. It is sometimes referred to as an orphan disease, one of those conditions that occurs so rarely that there are insignificant funds available to support research. Largely as a result of donations, NORD or the National Organization for Rare Disorders awarded a small research grant for SPS in 2010. Likely involving an autoimmune process, there is no clear racial or ethnic predisposition, although the disease may be more common in women than in men. According to www.hopkinsmedicine.org, the ratio is two women for every man effected. Interestingly, SPS has not been described in members of the same family and there is no known genetic predisposition. The link below is to Shane's new website:  http://www.run-to-live.com/

Friday, December 6, 2013

Stiff-Person Syndrome, 1 of 5

Do you feel stiff from time to time? We all do! Not everyone has Stiff-Person Syndrome or SPS, however. No, it’s not a joke. SPS really does exist! Also known as stiff-man syndrome and Moersch-Woltman condition, reportedly it was described first by Moersch and Woltman at Mayo clinic in 1956. On a recent airline flight to Australia I sat next to Kati and her boyfriend Shane, who was diagnosed with Stiff-Person Syndrome in 2007. We chatted a bit about the impact SPS has had on his life and how he developed and embarked on his own rehabilitation program, which has kept him out of a wheelchair and that actually may have saved his life.  A very rare disease of the nervous system, SPS may begin very subtly during a period of emotional stress and likely involves an autoimmune process. SPS is characterized by progressively severe muscle stiffness typically in the spine and lower extremities. Most patients experience painful episodic muscle spasms that are triggered by sudden stimuli. Shane stumbled across the recognition that when he experienced muscle spasms, exercise helped reduce his pain. As you may imagine, that has changed the way he relates to and manages SPS.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

Today we pause to reflect on the 96 years of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. I recall standing in the unbelievably small cell on Robben Island where Mandela spent so many solitary years. From the 17th to the 20th centuries, Robben Island served as a place of banishment, isolation and imprisonment. Today it is a World Heritage Site and museum, a poignant reminder  of the price paid for freedom. Looking toward shore from the island, I could glimpse Table Mountain in the distance. So near and yet so far. Although not much of a souvenir collector, I brought back two copies of the key to Mandela's prison cell: One for me and one for Dr. Sharlet Briggs. I agree. There likely will not be another Nelson Mandela, no other brain that could accomplish what he managed to accomplish and in the way he accomplished it. I have a favorite quote of his, also:  “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Gender and Map Reading, #2

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania used a special brain-scanning technique called diffusion tensor imaging, which can measure the flow of water along a nerve pathway. According to Professor Verma, this technique established the level of connectivity between nearly 100 regions of the brain, creating a neural map of the brain called the “connectome.” It allows scientists to determine whether one area of the brain is physically connected to another area of the brain, which allows them to compare similarities and differences between two populations. Conclusions are that there are differences in the way nerves connect when comparing male brains with female brains. It appears that a type of hardwiring occurs during adolescence, a time when many of the so-called secondary sexual characteristics such as facial hair in men and breasts in women develop. Researchers believe that these hardwiring differences play an important role in understanding the reason males are generally better at spatial tasks involving muscle control, while females are generally better at verbal tasks involving memory and intutition.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Gender and Map Reading, #1

For several years now research studies related to gender differences have provided interesting tidbits on how male and female brains differ. For example, common wisdom has been that the male brain seems to be better at map reading. There are always exceptions because each brain is so individualized. Some women are better at map-reading than some men, but the generalization is in favor of the male brain. Women, on the other hand, appear to be better at recalling the content of conversations. A pioneering study at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia has shown for the first time that the brains of men and women are wired up differently. Turns out that many of the connections in a typical male brain run between the front and the back of the same side of the brain, whereas in a typical female brain the connections are more likely to run from side to side between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This goes along with earlier studies that indicated the Corpus Callosum, the largest band of horizontal connecting fibers in the brain, tends to be larger in the female brain.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Sleep Deprivation #6

Missing out on sleep can damage both your physical and emotional health. Jane  Brody, writer of a "Well" blog in the New York Times, has some suggestions.
1.  Engaging in physical activity (exercise) during the day can help you to fall asleep later on in the day. Because physical activity can increase your alertness, however, avoid exercising within 2-3 hours of  bedtime.
2. Managing anxiety and negative stress can help improve your sleep. Try taking a bath, relaxing your muscles, or meditating just before going to bed.
3. Making healthy choices about food and beverages can help improve the quality of your sleep. Avoid eating a big meal, drinking alcohol , or ingesting caffeine just before going to bed.
4. Consulting with your physician about prescription and over-the-counter drugs can result in medication changes that could improve your quality of sleep.
Each brain has an optimum sleep requirement. Make it a priority to figure out what your brain needs and then figure out how to give it what it needs.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Where Did The Sound Originate?

Can you tell where a sound is coming from? Identifying where a sound originated from isn't always an easy task, and it may become even more difficult as people age or develop hearing problems. New research published in the Journal of Neuroscience has found that a small group of neurons in the inferior colliculus (IC) are key to performing this task. The higher-level areas of the brain that actually determine what direction a sound comes from can't actually use the sound to solve the problem. Instead, these areas have to rely on how the sound was represented in electrical activity in lower-level auditory areas of the brain. In this work, the researchers recorded neural activity from the inferior colliculus in animals as they listened to sounds coming from various directions. The researchers found that they could figure out what direction the sound was coming from based on the pattern of activity from a collection of less than a hundred IC neurons. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Genetic Mutations in ALS and Dementia

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently released findings related to the ability to manipulate brain cells in test tube studies. The purpose was to determine if new drugs might be used to stop the brain-destroying impact of a genetic mutation at work in some forms to two incurable diseases:  Dementia and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's disease ALS, sometimes known as Lou Gehrig's disease, named for the Yankee baseball great who died from it, which destroys nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement.) Traditionally, “Efforts to treat neurodegenerative diseases have the highest failure rate for all clinical trials,” says J. D. Rothstein MD, PhD, professor of neurology and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and leader of the research described online in the journal Neuron. The research was funded by grants from several organizations including the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. This is very good news. In the future, this may mean that scientists analyze cerebral spinal fluid from patients with dementia and ALS in a new way. These may pave the way to develop markers that can be studied by clinicians to see if the treatment is working once the drug therapy is moved to clinical trials.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Mindset and Perceived Status

Is there anything you can do to influence how people perceive you in terms of perception and group interactions? It appears that the answer is “yes.” Gavin J. Kilduff of New York University and Adam D. Galinsky of Columbia University, how you feel at the moment you join a new group has a significant impact on your initial status among the members of the group as well as your perceived status later on. Their findings suggest that whatever your typical baseline mindset, you can achieve a perceived higher status by increasing your happiness, eagerness, or sense of power just before you join a group. Harvard Business review summarized it this way:  people who were induced to feel happy (via writing about a happy experience) were subsequently rated by their teammates in a hypothetical snowstorm-survival task as having higher status (2.13 on a 1-to-7 scale) than those who hadn’t been primed to feel happy (1.79); similar effects were seen when people were primed to feel eager and powerful, and the status perceptions lingered for days, probably because of the reinforcing nature of group hierarchies. Studies have shown the positive benefits to brain and body of maintaining a happy, positive mindset. Now it appears that this impacts the way others perceive the person, as well. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Your Synapses and Neurons #2

  • It's quite well established now that pugilistic trauma to your brain can actually break off the axon, the one large projection from each neurons. So what happens in conditions such as Alzheimer's? It seems that one of the ways in which Alzheimer's negatively impacts thinking ability involves the size of the synapse. Nerve endings begin to shrink and increase the distance between the end of an axon and the dendrite or another neuron. This increased space not only means that thinking takes longer but sometimes the message just cannot make it across the space. The process in the brain that should be sprouting nerve endings die and eventually, the person can no longer handle short-term memory or the retrieval of long-term memory. Are you afraid you are developing Alzheimer's? Get your brain evaluated and be sure you are doing a minimum of 30 minutes of challenging mental exercise every day. Avoid worrying, however, as worry is lethal for brain function. One bottom line says that you know you don't have dementia just because you misplace your car keys. On the other hand, you know you may have Alzheimer's when you see your car keys and forget what you would use them for.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Your Synapses and Neurons #1

Most people now know the term neuron (nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nervous system) that have a special ability to talk with each other. They hold these conversations throughout a vast and intricate network. Estimates are that your brain alone contains about 100 billion neurons (and that there are thousands of neurons in your heart and at least a million in your intestines, and so on). These 100 billion neurons connect with each other via a quadrillion connections known as synapses (the tiny space between each neurons). The book Super Brain describes it this way: neurons project wormlike threads known as axons and dendrites, which deliver both chemical and electrical signals across the space between synapses. A neuron contains many dendrites to receive information from other nerve cells. But it has only one axon, which can extend out to over a meter (about 39 inches) in length. An adult human brain contains well over 100,000 miles of axons and countless dendrites--enough to wrap around the earth over four times. Wow!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Seeing Is Believing, 5 of 5

The McGurk effect (perceiving what you see rather than what you hear) arises during phonetic processing because the integration of audio and visual information happens early in speech perception. And it’s not limited to syllables. The effect can occur in whole words. The McGurk effect has also been examined in relation to witness testimony. Wareham and Wright's 2005 study showed that inconsistent visual information can change the perception of spoken utterances. It likely impacts daily interactions in a way that many are unaware of. According to Wikipedia, people who are used to watching dubbed movies may be among those who are not susceptible to the McGurk effect because they have, to some extent, learned to ignore the information they are getting from the mouth of the person speaking.  The take-away? Learn to pay attention and be aware of this phenomenon. If your eyes and ears register different meanings, ask for clarification. Of course, that’s assuming it involves in-person conversations and not something occurring on a movie screen!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Seeing Is Believing, 4 of 5

Some people, including those that have been researching the phenomenon for more than twenty years, have reported experiencing the McGurk effect even when they are aware that it is taking place. Although some people can identify most of what is being said from lip reading along, the majority of individuals are rather limited in their ability to identify speech from visual-only signals. An ability to use visual speech to increase the intelligibility of heard speech in a noisy environment can be a definite asset. Most think of speech perception as an auditory process. Studies have shown, however, that one’s use of information is immediate, automatic, and, to a large degree, unconscious. This means that speech is not only something that is heard, it is perceived by all of the senses working together (seeing, touching, and listening to a face move). The brain is often unaware of the separate sensory contributions of what it perceives, so when it comes to recognizing speech the brain cannot differentiate whether it is seeing or hearing the incoming information. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Seeing Is Believing, 3 of 5

New studies by researchers at the University of Utah have added to the body of knowledge related to the McGurk effect, suggesting a mechanistic underpinning for the McGurk effect (a perceptual phenomenon related to hearing and seeing in decoding speech).  In the brain, information from the visual cortex may be instructing the auditory cortex which sound to “hear” even before an auditory stimulus is received. According to the researchers, the McGurk effect is strong enough to be perceived even if the viewer knows the illusion is occurring, suggesting that visual stimuli can influence early representations of auditory stimuli. Meaning that knowledge about the phenomenon seems to have little effect on one's perception of it. This is different from some specific optical illusions which break down once one 'sees through' them. This understanding of multisensory neocortical language processing provides insight into the multisensory neural mechanisms underlying language perception and has implications for rehabilitation therapy and neural prostheses.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Seeing Is Believing, 2 of 5

Have you experienced the McGurk effect? This effect may be experienced when a video of one sound production is dubbed with a sound-recording of a different sound being spoken. Often, the perceived sound is a third, intermediate sound. For example, the syllable “ba-ba” is spoken over the lip movements of “ga-ga”, and the perception is of “da-da”. Reserachers McGurk and MacDonald believed that this resulted from the common sound and visual properties of “b” and “g” and involved the brain's effort to provide the consciousness with its best guess about the incoming information. The information coming from the eyes and ears is contradictory, and in this instance, the eyes (visual information) had a greater effect on the brain and thus the fusion and combination responses have been created. Vision is a primary sense for humans while speech perception is multimodal, meaning it involves information from more than one sensory modality, in particular, auditory and visual. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Seeing Is Believing, 1 of 5

Do you know about the McGurk effect? It describes a perceptual phenomenon, an illusion really, related to hearing and seeing in decoding speech. The illusion occurs when the auditory component of one sound is paired with the visual component of another sound, leading to the perception of a third sound. Reportedly it was first described in 1976 in a paper by Harry McGurk and MacDonald entitled "Hearing Lips and Seeing Voices." The phenomenon was discovered accidently when McGurk and his research assistant, MacDonald, asked a technician to dub a video with a different sound from the one spoken while conducting a study on how infants perceive language at different developmental stages. When the video was played back, both researchers heard a third sound rather than the one spoken or mouthed in the video. If a person is getting poor quality auditory information but good quality visual information, they may be more likely to experience the McGurk effect and go with what they “saw” rather than what they “heard.” 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Brain Myths #5

The last myth we'll discuss in this cluster is the belief that you lose millions of brain cells every day and that they cannot be replaced. Yes, studies estimate that the average human brain loses about 85,000 neurons every day from the cortex. This is about one every second. However, when you really look at what this means, it's a tiny percentage of the neurons in your brain. Some estimates are that at the rate of one neuron per second, it would take you nearly 600 years to lose even half of your brain's neurons. Indeed because of neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons) Researcher Paul Coleman at the University of Rochester showed that the total number of nerve cells in your brain at age twenty does not significantly change when you reach age seventy. That's great news. How do you stimulate the neurons you do have?  By engaging in 30 minutes of challenging mental exercise every day--and by 30 minutes of moderate physical exercise every day. Studies with rats by Sam Sisodia, U of Chicago Alzheimer's researcher, showed that physical exercise and mental stimulation protected mice from exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer's even when they had been engineer to carry a human Alzheimer's mutation in their genome. So get busy . . . one hour a day is great prevention and can help you have a healthier older life. It may not only extend your years but help you keep life in those years.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Brain Myths #4

Have you been told that your brain is hardwired and that it cannot be changed? Studies by Karl Lashley with rats have shown that this myth needs to be viewed with a great deal of skepticism. Yes the brain has circuitry but its connections are composed of living tissue. There are no wires that cannot be altered, so to speak. Your brain's circuitry is definitely able to be reshaped by what you think and by the experiences you give your brain. There's an old saying:  neurons that fire together, wire together. This means that as you expose your brain to new experience and practice new skills, you can, in effect, rewire some of this circuitry and enhance your brain's function. The bottom line is that you are no hardwired in the sense that you are unable to alter your brain's circuitry. You brain is resilient. The process of neuroplasticity allows you to actually reshape your brain through your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Go for it!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Brain Myths #3

A very prevalent myth is that aging of the brain is not only inevitable and irreversible but also that there's little you can do about the process. Dump this myth now!  Studies suggest that in most cases you can slow down the onset of symptoms of aging through the lifestyle that you create and embrace.  Even the definition of old age is shifting. New slogans are emerging:  70 is the new 50; old age begins after age 85. The bottom line is that many people get lazy and apathetic about learning as they age. This is lethal for optimum brain function, which loves variety and responds well to learning new information. Many people relatively secure about what they know and avoid going out of their way to continually challenge their brain by learning something new. That's one reason travel is so good for the brain:  you give it new things to look at, smell, taste, hear, and different people and cultures with which to relate. You can increase your awareness of what is around you and converse with others about what you are perceiving and learning. You can choose to follow an upward learning curve no matter how old you are. This is one way you can create new dendrites on your new neurons, new synapses, and pathways that can help to stave off Alzheimer's disease. My brain's opinion?  It's more than worth the effort!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Brain Myths #2

A second myth that limits many individuals is a belief that when the brain becomes injured it likely will be unable to heal again. The brain may be injured in many different ways:  trauma due to strokes or a vehicle accident or being hit or damaged as in playing some sports. And, yes, due to this type of damage some of the connections between neurons are destroyed. Recent studies have shown that although this damage to neuronal connections (synapses) do interfere with brain functions, this often can be compensated for by other neurons stepping up their game and growing new connections. The nerves in brain and spinal column do not seem to regenerate as quickly as do nerves in the peripheral nervous system, but growth can and does happen. Neuroplasticity is better than mind over matter.  One saying goes this way:  if you want to know what your thoughts were like in the past, look at your body today.  If you want to know what your body will be like in the future, look at your thoughts today." What are your thoughts doing today?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Brain Myths #1

Myths about brain function abound. One is that the brain is rather one-dimensional in that you are pretty much as the whim of genetics and how your brain was developed by genes and chromosomes; that you are preprogrammed to be successful or unsuccessful. Dump this myth. The brain is multidimensional beyond imagination. Yes, you are the product of genes and chromosomes and you are impacted by epigenetics (cellular memory). However, accepting the position that biology is destiny runs in the face of what we know of the human brain. For example, more than half the facts that impact your rate of aging are within your partial if not complete control.  This is very important to understand, especially in relation to the plasticity of the brain. "Your brain made you do it" is an unfortunate default explanation for every behavior that is undesirable. That could be considered an example of allowing your brain use you, when in actuality you need to take responsibility for programming your brain and for using it in a way that will help you achieve the positive outcomes that you are able to picture.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Expectations and Your Brain

I'm making a list of key "secrets" about the brain, or perhaps "laws of the  brain" might be a better phrase. Expectations are extremely powerful, personal expectations, the expectations of others that you may buy into, and so on. Low expectations translate to low results. Studies have shown that the same school room of students performed entirely differently depending on the expectations of the teachers.  One teacher thought the students were not very bright and actually made comments that the students would be lucky to pass. The next year a different teacher to the same group of students thought the students were capable of doing very well in school, making comments that she expected them all to be able to earn good grades. The outcome? The students performed to the expectations of their teacher. One of the laws of the brain states: all things being equal you brain performs to your expectations. Low expectations mean low results. As Deepak Chopra put it in his book Super Brain, "Your brain is always evesdropping on your thoughts. As it listens, it learns. If you teach it about limitation, your brain will become limited." Take a few minutes today and identify some of the expectations you have for your brain.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Dendrites and Dendritic Spines, 2 of 2

The term dendrite likely comes from a Greek word meaning “tree.” Dendrites are the branches projections from a neuron that are able to conduct the electrochemical stimulation from other neurons to the cell body of the neuron from which the dendrites project. Meaning that the dendrites pull information into the cell so learning can take place. If a brain is enriched, estimates are that each neuron may have thousands of dendrites. Recently, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have discovered that dendrites do more than passively relay information—they actively process information, according to Spencer Smith, PhD, an assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine. The dendritic spikes apparently “increase the selectivity of neuronal responses to the orientation of a visual stimulus (orientation tuning). Dendritic spines may have something to do with your ability to process visual information.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Dendrites and Dendritic Spines, 1 of 2

There’s new studies about the role of dendrites. Think of your hand as a neuron—those special cells that have an ability to transmit information. Your palm can represent the cell body; your thumb as the axon, the largest project from a neuron; and your fingers can represent dendrites, projections from the cell. Some estimates say you can alter the shape of a dendrite in thirty seconds and can grow a new one in 30 minutes. Some types of dendrites such as the Purkinje cells in the cerebral cortex, contain additional small hair-like projections often known as dendritic spines. There are approximately 200,000 dendritic spines per cell. Increased neural activity at spines increases their size and conduction which is thought to play a role in learning and memory formation. Now, new research is expanding knowledge of the role of dendrites and their dendritic spines.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Self-talk and Physical Fatigue

Researchers at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, and other institutions reported on an experiment related to exercise fatigue and mindset (the article was published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise). On one level, these findings indicate that “motivational self-talk improves endurance performance compared to not using it,” said Samuele Marcora, the director of exercise research at the University of Kent and senior author of the study. But a deeper reading of the data, he continued, buttresses the idea that physical exhaustion develops, to a considerable degree, in your head. “If the point in time at which people stop exercising was determined solely biologically,” he said, self-talk would have no effect. But it did. However, to be effective, self-talk likely must be consistent and systematic.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Raising Your EQ

In a recent advertisement for products related to Emotional Intelligence, the Harvard Business Review included these two sentences :  "Emotional intelligence is a combination of self-management and social skills that can transform and optimize individual and team performance. Now you can learn to develop and leverage your own emotional intelligence to improve your own and your team's productivity." I like that because it makes it clear that Emotional Intelligence is more than emotions and feelings. Yes, you need to be be aware of emotions and use the information they provide to help you make sound and safe decisions but "knowing" isn't enough in and of itself. You need to build social skills and exhibit them successfully; you need to self-manage your behaviors. I often describe personal EQ as an ability to know when you feel good, when you feel bad, and how to get from bad to good in a way that gives you positive outcomes. Following that dictum has certainly helped me to avoid pitfalls such as taking things personally, jumping to conclusions, and overreacting . . .  Since the sky may be the limit for raising one's EQ, it involves an ongoing journey of skill building and implementation.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ultracrepidarian Brains

I've never used this word, at least not in public, although there have been times when I've been sorely tempted to do so.  This adjective pertains to an individual who criticizes, judges, or gives advice outside the area of the person's expertise. I love the derivation of the word. According to several dictionaries it probably resulted from a combination of the word ultra with the Latin word crepidam, meaning the sole of a shoe or sandal. My brain finds that so humorous:  unenlightened criticism coming out of the brain and the word describing it relates to the bottom of a shoe. That's about as far away from the brain and you can get! One source suggested that ultracrepidarian might be an allusion to the words of Pliny the Elder "ne supra crepidam sutor judicare," translated as "Let the cobbler not judge above the sandal," and perhaps referred to in the English proverb “Let the cobbler stick to his last."  The next time someone criticizes or judges or gives you advice outside of his or her area of expertise, just smile and say, "Thank you for that ultracrepidarian comment."  And move on.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Nematode Brains, 2 of 2

And what are nematodes? They’re slender round worms; likely the most numerous multicellular animals on earth. Estimates are that a handful of soil will contain thousands of the microscopic worms, many of them parasites of insects, plants or animals. Nematodes have even been found at great depth (0.9–3.6 kilometers) below the surface of the earth in gold mines in South Africa.  Free-living species are abundant, including nematodes that feed on bacteria, fungi, and other nematodes, yet the vast majority of species encountered are poorly understood biologically. There are nearly 20,000 described species classified in the phylum Nemata, although the total number of nematode species has been estimated to be about 1 million. Nematodes have been described as a tube within a tube; referring to the alimentary canal which extends from the mouth on the anterior end to the anus located near the tail. Nematodes possess digestive, nervous, excretory, and reproductive systems, but lack a discrete circulatory or respiratory system. In size they range from 0.3 mm to over 8 meters in length. Some can cause diseases affecting human beings, including ascariasis, trichuriasis, and hookworm disease. And now we know they have a brain. I wonder what they "think?" Scary thought!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Nematode Brains, 1 of 2

It has a brain! The nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans! Who knew? Actually, I’d never even thought about it before but it turns out that this worm has a brain with 302 neurons connected by approximately 8000 synapses. Austrian scientists were able to identify and record the activity of this worm’s brain with high remporal and spatial resolution. Hmmm.  Who knew? Supposedly it is the only creature for which a complete nervous system has been anatomically mapped. According to neurobiologist Tina Schrodel of, the neurons in the worm’s head were so densely packed that they could not distinguish them on the first images. Visualizing the neurons required tagging them with a fluorescent protein that lights up when it binds to calcium, signaling the nerve cells’ activity. With this new kind of microscopy, they were able to record the activity of 70% of the nerve cells in a worm’s head with high spatial and temporal resolution. This new technique, based on “sculpting” the three-dimensional distribution of light in the brain, may open up the way for experiments that were not possible before. One of the questions that will be addressed is how the brain processes sensory information to “plan” specific movements and then executes them.

Friday, November 8, 2013

"I'm Busy."

"Is there really such a thing as ONE?! One what? 
For example, how can we say we are each ONE person when each one of us is made of an estimated 100 TRILLION cells that are then each made of an estimated 100 TRILLION atoms?

Inside the nucle
us of each of your atoms are much much smaller protons rotating around each other at the speed of light inside which one are 10 to the 60th (a 1 with 59 zeros after it) much much much smaller packets of energy called Planck voxels (spherical Planck units) that make up the very fabric of space-time in an infinite holofractalgraphic 3D flower of life structure we call space.

So the next time someone asks you if you are busy, no matter if it is on the personal, physical, biological, chemical, cellular, atomic, sub-atomic or even at the Planck voxel level, the answer is always YES!"

The Resonance Project 

Thursday, November 7, 2013


Consciousness. It has intrigued me for a long time. As an article in New Scientist put it, how does a kilogram or so of nerve cells conjure up the seamless kaleidoscope of sensations, thoughts, memories and emotions that occupy every waking moment. In Ramachandran's book The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human he put it this way: How can a three-pound mass of jelly that you can hold in your palm imagine angels, contemplate the meaning of infinity, and even question its own place in the cosmos? And Dennett in Consciousness Explained wrote: Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery. A mystery is a phenomenon that people don't know how to think about—yet. Well, my brain's opinion is that whether or not we understand it or know how to think about it, conscious awareness is critical to living human life successfully by design. When you can label and describe something, you just might be able to do something about it, to manage it in a way that provides you with positive outcomes. It’s sort of like watching your mind in action and then collaborating with it . . .


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Gongoozle and the Brain

The art of gongoozling has all but disappeared from our modern work-a-day world and I, for one, think it's time we brought it back--to our vocabulary and to our lifestyle. The word gongoozle, according to Wiktionary, may have come from the Lincolnshire dialect (e.g., gawn and goose both mean stare or gape) and suggests some leisurely watching of something or other, originally probably boats going by from the bank of a canal or bridge. The other day I realized that gongoozling is something I love doing whenever I visit my cousin in Victoria, BC. His house is located on the banks of the inside passage and sitting on the deck, steaming cup of hot tea at the ready, it is a delicious treat to watch sea creatures, passing cruise ships, the ebb and flow of the waves, eagles and seagulls circling overhead, the movement of leaves in the breeze . . .nothing and everything.  I often recall that pleasure and look forward to the next opportunity.  Recently I realized there's no reason to gongoozle only when I visit Canada. I can do a bit of gongoozling here at home. There's plenty of opportunity. I just had to look for it. You just might want to add it to your vocabulary and to your lifestyle, too.