Monday, December 31, 2012

Your Sleep Dialogue

Did you know that studies at UCLA have challenged theories of brain communication during sleep (e.g., the hippocampus talks to the neocortex)? Studies showed there are three players: the neocortex, the hippocampus, and the entorhinal cortex or EC (which connects the neocortex and the hippocampus). And the neocortex is driving the entorhinal cortex, which in turn behaves as if it is remembering something, which then drives the hippocampus. According to Mehta, “This suggests that whatever is happening during sleep is not happening the way we thought it was. There are more players involved so the dialogue is far more complex, and the direction of the communication is the opposite of what was thought.” This process may occur during sleep as a way to unclutter memories and delete information that was processed during the day but is irrelevant, which results in consolidation of important memories as they become more salient and readily accessible. Notably, Alzheimer’s disease starts in the entorhinal cortex and those individuals tend to have impaired sleep in addition to memory challenges.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sociopathic Brain

Did you ever wonder how the sociopathic brain differs from a normal brain? Studies have shown that sociopathy is more than just the absence of conscience. It involves an inability to process emotional experiences (including caring and love) except when such an experience can be calculated as a coldly intellectual task. Dr. Martha Stout has reported that the sociopathic brain responds to emotionally charged words no differently from neutral words (unlike the non-sociopathic population). In addition, research using single-photon emission-computed tomography showed increased blood flow to the temporal lobes when the sociopathic brain was given a decisional task that involved emotional words, a task that would be almost neurologically instantaneous for normal brains.  The sociopathic brains were functioning as if they had been asked to work out an algebra problem.  Conclusion: sociopathy involves an altered level of processing of emotional stimuli at the level of the cerebral cortex (as compared to non-sociopathic brains), although the reason for this is not yet clear. It may be the result of a heritable neurodevelopmental difference that can either be slightly compensated for, or made much worse, by cultural, environmental, or child-rearing factors. Startling!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

MitoFIsh and Neurodegenerative Diseases

A see-through Zebrafish? Looks like it! Researchers in Germany have some newly generated tools, including transgenic MitoFish, that can be used to study the in vivo “life cycle” of mitochondria. Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), and MS (multiple sclerosis) may have something in common: a disturbance in the transport of mitochondria. Mitochondria are known as the powerhouse of a cell, subcellular organelles¾a double-walled subunit within a cell that has a specific function. In this case, the specific function is producing energy for the cells. No surprise, mitochondria typically can be found in large numbers in cells that have high energy needs. In neurons, for example, that are extremely power-hungry cells. Researchers hope that the MitoFish will open a whole new window on brain diseases.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Brain Conversations

Did you know that the neocortex and hippocampus “talk” to each other during sleep and  even during anesthesia? Researchers at UCLA studied three connected brain regions in mice: the new brain (neocortex), the old brain (hippocampus), and the intermediate brain (entorhinal cortex or EC) that connects the new and the old brains, so called. They discovered that the activity of the entorhinal cortex (EC), a brain region known to be involved in learning, memory, and Alzheimer’s disease behaves as if it’s remembering something during sleep. The EC showed persistent activity even when the brain was under anesthesia. According to researcher Mehta, the results are entirely novel, surprising, and important—since humans spend one-third of their lives sleeping and a lack of sleep results in adverse effects on health, including learning and memory problems. Too bad you can't listen in to those conversations . . .

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Nasreddin and the Street Lamp

I find Nasreddin stories fascinating. Turkey claims him, but so do other countries, including China and India. One dark night, so one fable goes, a neighbor noticed Nasreddin out in front of his house, down on his elbows and knees beneath the light of the street lamp. Obviously, Nasreddin was looking for something, carefully and methodically.
“What are you searching for?” asked the neighbor.
“My keys,” Nasreddin responded.
Being a good neighbor, the other man got down on his knees and pitched in to help. They searched and searched without finding the keys.
Becoming tired, the good neighbor finally sat back on his heels and asked, “Are you absolutely certain that you lost your keys here?”
“Of course I didn’t lose them here,” replied Nasreddin, “I lost them in my cellar.”
“Then what on earth are you doing looking for them out here under the street lamp?” asked the neighbor.
“Because there is more light out here,” replied Nasreddin.
When faced with a problem, have you ever wasted time and energy looking for a solution in the wrong place?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Happy Boxing Day!

Did you grow up celebrating Boxing Day? I did. It was our second day of Christmas in Canada and a public holiday (as it traditionally was in Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, at least). Some say Boxing Day began in the middle-ages when, by custom, servants would bring wooden boxes to work and their employers would (or at least had the opportunity to) fill those boxes with food and money in recognition of reliable and faithful service throughout the year. Some also say that Boxing Day is related to St. Stephen’s Day. Many sports events take place on Boxing Day¾often horse races and hunting events, as St. Stephen was thought of as a patron of horses. I’m told that two popular sports events take place in Australia: the Boxing Day Cricket Match and the Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race. In our home, we always selected at least one “something” to wrap and take to a homeless shelter or to a family who was deemed to be less fortunate than we believed ourselves to be. And it had to be something that we valued. I can remember agonizing over what that “something” would be. It would have been unthinkable to give away junk or something I didn’t like. Celebrating Boxing Day became a habit for me. If you’ve never celebrated it, try it. I bet you’ll like it!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Have a Wonderful Day!

Today is Christmas! Remember the American singer and film actor, Bing Crosby (1904-1977)? He has been quoted as saying: “Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won't make it 'white'." I always enjoyed hearing Bing sing White Christmas. Maybe because I spent the first 16 years of my life in Canada and we always (repeat ALWAYS) had a white Christmas—from Jack Frost’s etchings on our window panes to mountains of snow. And I mean mountains of snow. Sometimes it drifted against the front door so it was a struggle to open it; sometimes it mounded higher than my father was tall on both sides of our long driveway. Whatever your belief system and whether or not you celebrate Christmas per se, I wish you the best 24 hours of your life. Make today a time to share your blessings—the reason for the season. We all have blessings and memories of many others. And some of you will have a white Christmas . . . Ah, the childhood memories. Some good. Some bad. Some happy. Some sad.
Some cold. Some beyond cold, truth be told. But always, always—white!

Monday, December 24, 2012

You Are Powerful!

Do you know how powerful you are? You may recall learning that neurons put out electromagnetic (Em) energy. Turns out, according to Goleman in his book Primal Leadership, that the limbic system (second functional layer of the cerebrum) is an open-loop system. You can transmit signals that can alter hormone levels, cardiovascular function, sleep rhythms, and even immune function inside the body of another person. That's powerful! Of course, the most power is exerted on your own body. Next time you are tempted to harbor irritability and anger, especially toward another individual, you just might want to think again and change your thoughts. Positive thoughts result in positive Em energy--for you as well as for others. This holiday season, give everyone the gift of positive Em energy. Now that's powerful!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Read my What?

Trying to “read” whether a person’s intense emotion is positive or negative? Studies (Princeton U, NY U, Radboud U, Hebrew U) suggest you read the body language. Facial expressions among people undergoing fleeting peaks of intense pain, joy, grief, or anger look surprisingly similar. In fact, when you compare extreme pain to extreme pleasure, it’s difficult to tell them apart by facial expressions alone. Even expressions on the faces of winning athletes may not express a “positive” emotion, rather a sign of competitive dominance. The body never lies, however. More information and often more accurate information is revealed through body language. It may be more like “read my hips” than “read my lips.” When you’re trying to figure out whether a person is exhibiting intense positive versus negative emotion, get in the habit of looking at: (1) what's happening in the environment, (2) the person’s body language, (30) the face.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Stress and Risk of Colds

Would you like to reduce your risk of developing a cold, especially during the holiday season? Learn to manage the daily stressors of life more effectively. Sheldon Cohen, Carnegie Mellon University director of the Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity and Disease, and his research team were the first to show how chronic stressors can lead directly to the common cold. They found that the immune cells of people suffering from chronic stress (e.g., conflicts with bosses, spouses, close relatives; prolonged unemployment) gradually became insensitive to the ability of cortisol (stress hormone) to reduce inflammation. Thus, when exposed to a cold virus, their bodies were unable effectively to prevent disease symptoms caused by the inflammatory response. Individuals with ongoing conflict with others had more than twice the risk of getting a cold than those without chronic stress issues; the unemployed or underemployed had five times the risk of getting a cold when exposed to the virus.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Memories Distort with Recall

Did you know that every time your brain remembers something it distorts it? Maybe you need to be less certain that you recall something exactly as it happened. Study findings at Northwestern University found that your memories are modified during recall. It’s a bit like the old “phone game” many played as children. By the time the message is transmitted around the circle, the content can be light years different from the message that was whispered into the ear of the first person. That’s because human memories human memories are always adapting. Donna Bridge, researcher and lead author of the paper on the study recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience put it this way, “If you remember something in the context of a new environment and time, or if you are even in a different mood, your memories might integrate the new information.”

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Holiday Forgiveness

Did you know that there are sequential steps to forgiveness that could be helpful in your brain’s process of deciding to forgive? Holidays seems to bring up old resentments that have not been forgiven and let go. Sometimes these old resentments are from several generations back. Guidelines are given by Robert D. Enright PhD in his book FORGIVENESS IS A CHOICE - A step-by-step process for resolving anger & restoring hope. According to the author, guidelines for forgiving consist of four phases: uncovering your anger; deciding to forgive; working on forgiveness; discovery and release from emotional prison. The time of healing may vary from person to person and from case to case, with more time required for greater hurt and injustice. It is a process. Avoid discouragement if anger and hurt resurface again. Work the process, preferably with the help of a support person who is experienced in forgiveness. Working the process could make all the difference in the world to your holiday experience.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Have you hard about mindfulness-based stress reduction or MBSR? Holiday periods, while often fun and exciting, can be stressful. Worry and anxiety can flood your brain with cortisol, which can negatively impact your memory. MBSR was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the U of Massachusetts Medical School.  The focus of MBST is for the individual to figure out the things that cause stress in their life (some of which may be exaggerated out of proportion to reality) and learn to respond to them in a more empowered manner, rather than becoming quickly overwhelmed by them. When you feel stessed, take a ten minute break. Sit quietly and become mindful of what is happening in your brain and body. Start at your toes and move slowly up to your brain. Become aware of any areas of discomfort, your breathing, what you see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. If you begin worrying about the past or future, acknowledge the thought but avoid dwelling on it. Gently return to being mindful of what is happening in your brain and body. After the break, resume your normal activity.  When you identify a stressor, ask yourself what difference it will make in 12 months? If none, let it go. If it will make a difference, calmly craft a strategy to deal with it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Exercise and Your Brain

If you could only do one thing to help your brain, do you know what that would be? Physical exercise! According to Art Kramer, PhD, U of Illinois professor psychology and neuroscience, higher exercise levels can reduce risk of dementia by 30-40 percent and substantially lower risk of Alzheimer's disease (compared with low activity levels). Physical exercise helps the hippocampus, your brain's search engine, which tends to shrink with age. This, in turn, can lead to memory loss. Physical activity can also trigger the growth of new nerve cells. Even a little bit of exercise can help. As little as 15 minutes of regular exercise three times a week has been shown in some studies to help maintain brain health. You can always do something. Even if you are chair-bound, you may be able to do arm exercises and get the blood circulating through your brain at an increased rate. So get moving!

Monday, December 17, 2012

New Brain Skills

Are you middle-aged or older with few internet skills? Get busy developing them! MRI scans by researchers at UCLA showed that middle-aged and older adults with few internet skills triggered brain centers that control decision-making and complex reasoning--after just one week of surfing the net! This can help maintain healthy brain functiong. Challening the brain can trigger the growth of new brain cells and inctrease the number of connections between those cells. According to Keith L. Black, MD, chair of neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, it is important to learn new things. It's not enough to just keep repeating skills you already know, like playing the same card games over and over.  Learn to play a new song on your favorite instrument, learn a new form of bridge, take up sudoku, solve brain benders, learn to knit, surf the internet . . .

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Loss, Grief, and Your Brain

As the President put it, "once again" the nation is experiencing fall-out from another tragedy. Because of instant communication options, the world has shrunk to the size of a global village. This means that what happens in Connecticut doesn't stay in Connecticut. What happens in Connecticut, in effect, happens everywhere. The ramifications are enormous. For whatever reason some brains are unhealthy and seriously dysfunctional. That is sad enough. But when their dysfunction leaks out in ways that drag death and destruction in its wake, that is beyond sad. In fact, there are no words. Events such as these can be enormously traumatic for children. Depending upon their age and a host of other factors, however, they may experience tremendous levels of fear and anxiety. Sometimes these are masked by behaviors that seem unconnected to fear and anxiety. For tips on how to help children cope with loss, as well as comments on how males and females tend to approach loss and sadness (often very differently), you can access my article entitled: Loss Recovery -- Grief Recovery Pyramid.  With a little forethought in figuring out what to say or what not to say (sometimes empathetic silence is the preferred option) and by managing your own behaviors appropriately and effectively, you may be able to provide a great deal of help to others in this time of tragedy. The good news is that the human brain is very resilient.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Sleepy Foods #2

Did you know that generally complex carbohydrates such as quinoa, barley, wheat, and buckwheat, promote sleep? And speaking of carbs, bananas are also carbs. They also contain magnesium, a natural muscle relaxant, as well as potassium. That makes bananas a win-win because humans needs potassium for cardiovascular health and cognitive brain functioning. You might try a sweet potato snack, too. Sweet potatoes are a sleeper’s dream. They provide sleep-promoting complex carbohydrates plus potassium, a muscle-relaxant potassium. Lima beans and papaya also contain potassium. And then there’s turkey, which contains tryptophan, a chemical that can make you doze off after Thanksgiving dinner. According to Russell Rosenberg, PhD and CEO of the National Sleep Foundation, if you’re a die-hard insomniac, you’d have to eat a lot of turkey to have a major effect, but if you need a little shove in the right direction, it just might help.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Three Features of Human Intelligence

According to some, human intelligence has three distinct main features:

• It is amazingly diverse. Human intelligences come in a myriad of different styles and can be expressed in an endless number of ways.

• It is tremendously dynamic. Amazing breakthroughs occur as human beings discovering new connections between things and ideas in the intensely interactive human brain.

• It is entirely distinctive. Each person’s intelligence is as unique as a fingerprint. Each brain uses and expresses the differing forms of intelligence in a unique way.

Knowing that human intelligence is diverse, dynamic, and distinctive may help you identify and view your own intelligence in a new way.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Auditory Learning Style

Researchers at the University of Western Ontario have provided some tips for those who have an auditory learning style or who need to absorb information in that sensory system (hearing or reading) in a specific situation. When listening, sit towards the front of the room so you can hear well and avoid being distracted by sounds others make; repeat information silently to yourself as you take notes. When reading, repeat information either silently or aloud; use rhymes or jingles to remember key points; for terminology, think about how parts of the words sound ; consider studying with a partner, taking turns reading to each other and discussing key concepts. Some auditory learners like to record themselves verbalizing key points and then play the recording back as a rehearsal strategy.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Parkinson's and Light

Did you know the Michael J. Fox Foundation is funding research about the effects of light on Parkinson’s disease? According to Kurzweil News, researchers at Lund University plan to use optogenetics to stimulate neurons to release more dopamine in an effort to combat Parkinson’s disease. Optogenetics reportedly permits researchers to control specific cells in the brain using light, leaving other cells unaffected. To do this, the relevant cells are equipped with genes that express a special light-sensitive protein. The protein switches on cells when they are illuminated with light from a thin optic fiber implanted in the brain. The study itself will be conducted on laboratory rats with symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Reportedly, the transplanted cells will be obtained from the skin of an adult human and then “reprogrammed” to function as nerve cells.

Monday, December 10, 2012


How do you like those acronyms? Do you know what they stand for? Antidepressant therapies typically used to treat Major Depressive Disorder or MDD tend to be associated with sleep disturbances (sedating or activating). According to the National Institutes of Health, MDD affects approximately 14.8 million individuals, or about 6.7 percent of American adults in a given year and is the leading cause of disability in people ages 15 to 44. Enter TMS or transcranial magnetic stimulation. Researchers found that while powerful TMS of the frontal lobe of the brain can alleviate symptoms of depression, those receiving the treatment reported no effects on sleep or arousal commonly seen with antidepressant medication. “People’s sleep gets better as their depression improves, but the treatment doesn’t itself cause sedation or insomnia.” said Dr. Peter B. Rosenquist, Vice Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior at the Medical College of Georgia at George Health Sciences University. This is good news.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Albert Einstein's Brain

Have you ever wondered what was different about Albert Einstein’s brain? a new study led by Florida State University evolutionary anthropologist Dean Falk, may have some answers. The study, The Cerebral Cortex of Albert Einstein: A Description and Preliminary Analysis of Unpublished Photographs, (published in the journal Brain), includes some interesting information. For example, photographs of Einstein’s brain, taken shortly after he died, were recently uncovered by the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland. They were part of a donation from the estate of Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who took the photos. According to Falk, "Although the overall size and asymmetrical shape of Einstein's brain were normal, the prefrontal, somatosensory, primary motor, parietal, temporal and occipital cortices were extraordinary.” Einstein’s extraordinary prefrontal cortex may have contributed to some of his remarkable cognitive abilities.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Breathing Meditation and Positive Moods

Do you want your moods to be more positive? Research by Jane Anderson has shown that you can teach your neurons to meditate, which can change your brain. Studies done at the University of Wisconsin have shown that brain activity can be changed in about five weeks with a total of seven hours of training and practice. EEG measurements of the brain’s electrical activity were made before and after the five weeks. Participants were told to close their eyes, relax, and focus on the flow of their breath at the tip of nose. When random thoughts arose, they were just to acknowledge the thoughts and then let them go by gently bringing their attention back to their breathing. Those who had done the meditation training showed a difference in brain activity: a greater proportion of activity in the left frontal region of the brain in response to subsequent meditation attempts, a pattern of brain activity that has been associated in other studies with positive moods.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Music and the Brain

Did you know that playing a musical instrument changes both the anatomy and functions of the brain? Some have wondered, however, whether or not these changes persist after music training stops. Researchers studied this question by measuring auditory brainstem responses in a cohort of healthy young human adults with varying amounts of past musical training. Study results showed that adults who received formal music instruction as children have more robust brainstem responses to sound than peers who never participated in music lessons and that the magnitude of the response correlates with how recently training ceased. This indicated that neural changes accompanying musical training during childhood are retained in adulthood. According to researchers Erika Skoe and Nina Krause, these findings advance the understanding of long-term neuroplasticity and have general implications for the development of effective auditory training programs.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Stress and Working Memory

Did you know that Psychologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have figured out how stress interferes with one’s ability to pay attention, focus, and create working memory? Working memory is both short-term (seconds) and flexible, allowing the brain to hold a large amount of information close at hand to perform complex tasks. Without it, you would have forgotten the first half of this sentence while reading the second half. They watched neurons functioning in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, part of the brain that is vital to working memory. The neurons communicated on a scale of every thousandth of a second. In addition, they knew what they did one second to one-and-a-half seconds ago. In the presence of a stressor, however, while the neurons became even more active, they were reacting to other things and failed to retain information about what they did a second or so ago. The conclusion was that stress-related impairment of this mechanism is believed to contribute to the cognition-impairing actions of stress.

Monday, December 3, 2012

White and Gray Matter

Have you ever wondered about the difference between gray matter and white matter in the human brain? Dr. Amen, using a computer analogy, put it this way: “White matter is the tissue through which messages pass between different areas of gray matter within the brain. The gray matter can be thought of as the actual computers themselves, whereas the white matter represents the network cables connecting the computers together.” Obviously, both are important to brain function. Using a highway metaphor, think of the brain’s white matter as a pathway that has been paved with myelin, the brain’s asphalt. Paving a road in the literal world makes it easier to navigate safely and typically allows for faster travel. A similar situation occurs in the brain. Estimates are that messages travel across brain pathways at speeds of 200 miles per hour, which breaks down to about 400 feet per second. Pretty amazing!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Duchenne Smiles and Stress

Did you know that genuine smiles not only utilize the muscles of the mouth but also those of the eyes? They are known as Duchenne smiles, in honor of research by a French neurologist: Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne (de Boulogne) who lived from 1806 to 1875. Tara L. Kraft and Sarah D. Pressman of the University of Kansas studied whether covertly manipulating positive facial expressions would influence cardiovascular and affective responses to stress. Study participants were asked to complete stressful tasks(e.g., tracing a star using their nondominant hands) while holding chopsticks in their mouths in a manner that produced a Duchenne smile, a standard smile, or a neutral expression. Findings revealed that all smiling participants, regardless of whether they were aware of smiling, had lower heart rates during stress recovery than the neutral group did, with a slight advantage for those with Duchenne smiles. It appears that there are physiological and psychological benefits to be gained from maintaining a positive facial expression during stress.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Holiday Stress

Do you tend to overreact to even simply daily stressors to say nothing of holiday stress? Holiday periods can constitute an increased challenge because individuals often lose sleep, eat less healthfully, drink too much, and associate with people who create stress in the environment. The overreaction to stressors, even minor ones, can lead to high blood pressure, infectious diseases, and the worsening of autoimmune diseases and HIV/AIDS cases. Stressful social interactions can increase the risk for metabolic syndrome (a precursor to type 2 diabetes). Plan your activities with care. Just because you’re in the habit of routinely following holiday tradition, you can often make a healthier choice for you. Choose to avoid some of the more “stressful” social events, or limit the time you spend there. Remember that the problem is not the stressor itself, but the person’s reaction to it. Learn to stop taking anything personally—it’s just another brain’s opinion and may have no relevance to your brain at all. Sometimes all you can do is refuse to take the situation too seriously and just laugh about it. After all, it’s your life and your health.