Thursday, February 28, 2013

Eureka! Café Crêpes de Paris

A DNA marker supposedly indicates I'm descended from Helena, a woman who reportedly marked the beginning of my mitochondrial type, Haplogroup H, and believed to have inhabited an area now in modern-day France.  (If accurate, one of the more famous of my Haplogroup H ancestors would be the French queen Marie Antoinette. Hmmm.) Fast forward. Ancestors of my maternal grandmother, Rosealba Champagne, reportedly moved to Canada from the Champagne-producing region of France. So what with a maternal French background plus my grandmother's fabulous French cooking, I'm sure I have cellular (as well as real-time) memories for crepes. I have eaten my way across France, Normandy, and Brittany more than once, truth be told. Problem: it's been a very long time since I've found any crêpes on this side of the pond that taste really "authentic" to me. Well, while presenting a series of seminars in Bakersfield, I hit the proverbial gourmet jackpot in a tiny cafe among a collection of tiny European-flavored shops. Martin and Marina Flores have the flavor down cold. (He says he's from Mexico but he easily could pass for a French cousin of mine. Smile.)  I had a mini-birthday-party brunch there with friends earlier this month.  If you like crêpes (they do have other options, as well), it is so worth the 5-10 minute drive from the 99 S freeway:  Café Crêpes de Paris at 1028 Truxtun Avenue in Bakersfield, CA 93301 (661.374.4946). They're open 9am to 2pm seven days a week. Tell them I sent you! All I need now is another reason to pop down to Bakersfield... 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Outliers and Innate Giftness

The topic of "outliers" raised its head over lunch recently, Malcom Gladwell having popularized that term. It sparked a lively conversation! We even started identifying examples of individuals that our brains considered to be outliers in their field whether it be sports, music, science, literature (to name just a few). Then the question to me was, "In terms of brain function, who do you think become outliers?" In a general sense I perceive three factors to be inter-related:  1) The person's innate giftedness;  2) An environment that helps the innate giftedness flourish; 3) A personal interest and commitment that devotes the requisite effort and time (e.g., 10,000 hours minimum) to hone the innate giftedness. Some have talent and never hone it. Perhaps because they never unwrapped their giftedness (as Shannon Chadwick put it) or never caught a vision of what was possible or found the environment not conducive. However, there are those who identiy their innate gifatedness find a way to hone their talent in spite of the environment or they find a new environment. My brain's opinion is that the world could use more outliers . . .

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Whale Brains and Spindle Cells

VENs or Spindle cells, named after their long, spindle-shaped bodies, are neurons that are credited with allowing you to feel love and to suffer emotionally. According to Jon Allman, who spends a lot of his time counting cells in the brain, spindle cells may be the cells that "make us human." Think of VENs as the express trains of the nervous system. They bypass unnecessary connections, enabling you to instantly process and act on emotional cues during complex social interactions. They exist in parts of the human brain that are thought to be responsible for social organization, speech, intuition about the feelings of others, empathy, and rapid "gut" reactions. Now they have been discovered in the brain of whales, which means that at some level whales may share some of the cells that “make us human.” According to Patrick Hof of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and co-discoverer of the whale spindle cells with Estel van der Gucht of the New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology:  “They (whales) communicate through huge song repertoires, recognize their own songs and make up new ones. They also form coalitions to plan hunting strategies, teach these to younger individuals, and have evolved social networks similar to those of apes and humans.” No surprise, this is stimulating some debate both on the level of whale intelligence and on the ethics of hunting them.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Spindle Neurons (von Economo)

Spindle neurons are also known as VENs or von Economo neurons, named after Constantin von Economo who described them in 1929. These unusual-shaped neurons form a specific class and come in clusters of only 3-6. Unlike most other types of neurons that have multiple dendrites, VENs have a single axon that goes in one direction with a single dendrite facing the opposite direction. VENs have been identified in the anterior cingulate cortex, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the fronto-insular cortex of the human brain. Studies have shown that the brains of some Super Ages had four times as many of these spindle neurons compared to the brains of other older individuals. VENs  are believed to impact higher-order thinking. Interestingly enough, these neurons have also been discovered in some other species:  whales (e.g., killer, sperm, fin, humpback, beluga); dolphins (bottlenose, Risso’s); African and Asian elephants; great apes. According to Wikipedia, scientists have implicated spindle neurons as having an important role in many cognitive abilities and disabilities generally unique to humans (e.g., savant perceptiveness, perfect pitch, dyslexia, autism).

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Flu and the Flu

Studies have shown that when a male and a female each come down with the flu, all things being equal, the male will generally feel much worse (because his body doesn't handle fluid fluctuation in muscle tissue as effectively as does the female body). No doubt you’ve heard about this phenomenon, if you haven’t experienced it personally. He is splayed out on the couch, certain he won’t live through the evening much less the night. Groaning, he says, “Could you bring me some 7-Up?” She responds with, “What? I’m trying to put dinner on the table and I’ve got the flu, too. Get your own 7-Up!” Okay, there are many women who are not this unresponsive, but you get the idea. Even if she doesn’t say anything, however, she may still be thinking it! Knowing this is no license for you guys to milk your flu episode for all it’s worth. On the other hand, some of you gals might want to cut the males in your circle a bit more slack. Truly, many of them do report feeling as if they’re dying!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Brain and Culture

According to Gazzaniga, author of Who’s in Charge, “social organization affects cognitive processes indirectly by focusing our attention on different parts of the environment and directly by making some social communications patterns more acceptable than others.” Researchers flashed pictures of simple scenes to Americans and to East Asians and then asked them what they recalled. The East-Asian participants tended to pay attention to the entire overall scene while the American participants tended to recall main items in the picture. This appeared to reflect some cultural differences. Asians are more likely to see themselves as an interwoven part of a big picture, whereas Americans tend to see themselves as having more individual power.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Active vs Passive Stress

Someone asked the other day about the difference between active and passive stress and the resulting impact of each on the body's immune system. My brain's opinion is that active stress involves something that you are actively involved with (e.g., you are meeting a deadline of some type, you are choosing to exercise, you are taking a class at the Junior College). If the outcome is successful and your life is in balance, that type of short-term active stress can actually boost immune system function.  On the other hand, passive stress (e.g., watching a scary movie--which is the reason I never do--, a situation that you can't do much about such as the 9-11 disaster, or chronic and prolonged stress) can suppress immune system function. You can always do something about almost anything. And when you do something, it helps to moderate the stress of feeling passively helpless. For example, when bad things happen you can acknowledge what happened and then try to identify something you can learn from the experience or something for which you can be grateful.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Brain and Spirituality

Researchers at Duke University have been studying hospital employees who work in clinical areas. Results of some of the studies have shown that high levels of spirituality within the facility correlated with high scores in:

  • More job satisfaction
  • Increased perception of quality
  • Lower turnover rates

Notice that the word is "spirituality," not "religion". Many confuse the two. Some researchers believe that the human brain is innately spiritual (able to experience a sense of awe) while affiliation with a religious denomination is a choice. There are countless examples in today's world of religious dogma without accompanying concepts of spirituality, as well as the exhibition of spiritual behaviors without affiliation with religion. Reportedly, Duke plans to engage in ongoing research in this area. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Arguing and the brain

Parental arguing can have long-term consequences for boys in the home (e.g., downshifting, failure to learn, depression). It's not that arguing and divorce doesn't impact girls negatively, but it appears that it takes boys longer to recover and return to learning readiness. Now a two-year study by researchers out of Chicago suggests that it isn't just the kids who are at risk. Immune system function appears to be suppressed in the bodies of couples who argue. One suggestion was that when the couple disagrees about something, rather than argue, each is to write a letter to the other person from the perspective of a neutral third party, indicating what would likely be best for both individuals. Then the individuals need to read their letter and pay attention to the different perspective. When people argue they often pump adrenalin, which in turn triggers the release of dopamine. Thus they can end up becoming addicted to their own adrenalin and dopamine, so they continue to argue to self-medicate. People who argue frequently may have self-esteem issues, too, and only feel okay about themselves if they perceive themselves to be "right." Consequently, one partner (or both) spends time and energy trying to convince the other to agree that he or she is "right." Many don't understand that each brain is different and that each brain can be "right" for itself. The issues arise when one brain thinks it really knows what is best for its partner's brain and tries to talk louder or longer or add some coercion or threat in an attempt to get the other brain to agree. Ask, "Will this matter at all 12 months from now?" If no, stop arguing. If yes, get a mediator to help.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Presidents' Day

Today is a federal holiday, the first ever to honor an American citizen. Originally it was designed to commemorate the birth of George Washington (February 22nd), first President of the United States, sometimes called “The Father of His Country.” Later there was a move to do the same for President Abraham Lincoln (February 12th). And then a third holiday was proposed to honor the office of the Presidency. Some in congress evidently thought three holidays in February was a bit excessive. An early draft of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act would have renamed the holiday “Presidents’ Day” to honor the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln (with a date selected that falls between their two birthdays). This draft failed in committee, however, and the bill as voted on and signed into law on June 28, 1968, kept the name Washington's Birthday. President Nixon reportedly encouraged people to call it Presidents’ day in honor of all presidents, past and present. Indeed, some States include others in remembrance activities. Many people appreciate the holiday but don’t think much about the legacy American presidents leave behind or about their brains. Although ultimately fairly lucrative and iconic for holders of the office, in many ways it is a thankless and stressful position—because one brain can never please all brains all the time! I know that when I make presentations it is gratifying when some of the brains—some of the time—enjoy, find the information useful, and practically apply it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Pope's Brain

Several people emailed asking what I think about the Pope's retirement (some recalled my French-Catholic maternal line). I find it both refreshing and affirming when a brain knows itself well enough to realize when it is time to move in a different direction and is emotionally and cognitively healthy enough to do so. The pace at which many country and religious leaders move eventually can take its toll on both the brain and the body (head injury or not). If the news blurbs are to be believed, the Pope doesn't expect to check out from life, but plans to write and mentor. Typically, monarchs and popes retain power until they die, at which time a successor assumes the office. In effect, this leaves the successor without real-time access to an individual who has lived a similar experience, knows what it means, and understands what it takes to accomplish the task. My brain's opinion? Resigning and mentoring a successor may be the best of both worlds, as long as the successor is willing to ask for and at least consider the opinions of the one who resigned. Personally, I hope the Pope has a fulfilling and productive retirement.

Friday, February 15, 2013


How do you handle your mistakes? Do you overreact, try to hide them, or continue exhibiting behaviors that have proven unproductive? According to Paul Schemaker, research director for the Mack Centre for Technological Innovation at the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania) and co-author of the book Brilliant Mistakes, most people tend to overreact when they make an error, which in some cases can be both dangerous and expensive. Making mistakes is simply validation that you are human. Naturally, the preferred types of mistakes are those where the costs are low and the learning is high. When you make a mistake, own your part in the error and apologize for that. Avoid blaming, defensiveness, over-apologizing, taking responsibility for what wasn't your contribution, becoming mired in self-flagellation, and so on. Take a few moments to reflect on what set up the mistake, make restitution when possible, and identify what you can do another time to avoid a similar mistake. Then move on. Remember, learning from your mistakes is a choice.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day

The "red heart" day has arrived. Sending valentines was a big deal when I was in middle school. Some of the kids kept track of how many they received, openly flaunting their stash. Some made a big deal of ripping up valentines received from out-of-favor senders. Even back then watching that drama was an "ouch." A couple of things to remember: studies have shown that when a male and a female are subjected to the similar stressors, the female will generally perceive the experience as more stressful (because surface cell receptors in her brain tend to remain open, taking the full hit of hormones and chemicals released by the stress; the male brain tends to deactivate half of his receptors). So if you're male, avoid telling a stressed female to "just get over it." It may not be that easy for her brain. If you're female and stressed, try asking a male for ideas on how to deal with the situation. Whatever you do, choose to have a happy day--life is far too short for anything else!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Brain and Finger Wrinkles

Have you ever wondered the reason for wrinkling when your hands have been submerged for a time in water? Studies by researchers at the Institute of Neuroscience, Newcastle University, may have an answer. According to their findings, water-induced finger wrinkles improve the handling of wet objects (whereas wrinkles make no difference when manipulating dry objects). Wrinkling was induced by immersing both hands in tap water for 30 minutes. (Unwrinkling was achieved by washing hands with soapy water, drying them and then waiting 10-12 minutes for the wrinkles to disappear). The formation of these wrinkles is an active process controlled by the autonomic nervous system. Submerse your fingers and toes in water for a while and your brain sends messages to the fingertip and toe pulp to initiate vasoconstriction. This gives you better gripping power for fingertips and toes.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Myth of Happiness

This is the title of a book by Sonja Lyubomirsky and she has some very interesting things to say. According to the author, much of the cultural socialization about happiness really amounts to a false promise. How many times have you said something like, “I’ll be so happy when_________________.” And were you? From a brain function perspective, when you say, “I’m going to be happy when ______ the brain thinks (in effect), “When you get there, I’ll help you to be happy.” But since you are speaking in future tense—and the brain tends to get into gear in the present—it doesn’t help you choose happiness now. You know people who have chosen to be happy whether they are single, married, or divorced. You also know people who have chosen to be unhappy whether they are single, married, or divorced. A researcher commented the other day, “Most people have what could make them happy—and yet they are discontented and unhappy.” It starts with a decision. “I choose to be happy right now.”

Monday, February 11, 2013

Nightcap and REM Sleep

Some think that a nightcap can help them to sleep better. Maybe not and those findings from a review of 27 studies are expected to be published in the April 2013 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. According to Dr. Scott Krakower, an addiction specialist at North Shore-LIJ in Mineola, N.Y.: “People who drink alcohol often think their sleep is improved, but it is not.” While alcohol does allow healthy people to fall asleep quicker and sleep more deeply for a while, it also reduces rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. According to Irshaad Ebrahim, medical director at The London Sleep Centre in the U.K., alcohol is more disruptive to sleep overall, particularly in the second half of the night. It also suppresses breathing and can precipitate sleep apnea.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Brain and Hunger

Appetite is a very complex regulatory process. According to an article in Scientific AmericanTM (based on a recent study in PLOS One by Jeffrey Brunstrom and colleagues, your sense of hunger is a “trick of memory” and is influenced by how much you think you ate. Participants were asked to eat soup (some from bowls that were rigged to add more to the bowl, take some away, or do nothing to the amount—all unbeknownst to the subjects). Here are a few caveats:

• Right after a meal, participants who had eaten a larger portion were more sated than those who had eaten a smaller portion (one cup versus two cups of soup).

• Two and three hours later, however, although all participants were hungrier, of course, it had little to do with how much soup had actually been eaten.

• Participants who ate a small portion and thought it was large were more sated than those who ate a large portion and thought it was small.

When it comes to feeling full, it appears that your eyes are more important than your stomach and more deliberate and mindful eating (versus mindless or distracted eating) leads to stronger food-associated memories, which in turn provide a stronger antidote against future hunger.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

PTSD Estimates

The military has been studying posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Available data from these studies suggest:

• While most individuals who are exposed to a traumatic and stress even experience some PTSD symptoms in the days/weeks following exposure, about 8% of males and 20% of females go on to develop PTSD (slightly under a third of whom may develop a chronic form)

• An estimated 7.8% of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives (10.4% female and 5% male)

• Traumatic events most often associated with PTSD for males are childhood physical abuse, childhood neglect, rape, and combat exposure; for females it is childhood physical abuse, rape, sexual molestation, physical attack, and being threatened with a weapon

• About 30% of males and females who have spent time in war zones experience PTSD

Friday, February 8, 2013

Sleepy Foods #3

Did you know that the root of the valerian plant has been shown in some studies to speed the onset of sleep and improve sleep quality? Some people hold that valerian tea along with motherwort, chamomile, and catnip brews, none of which contain caffeine, will help make you drowsy. According to Timothy Roehrs, PhD, a senior scientist with Henry Ford Sleep Disorder and Research Center in Detroit, it may be less any property of the actual tea and more the power of a relaxing ritual as you get ready for bed. And speaking of tea, aromatherapy works for some people, lavender for example. Studies have shown that lavender is a cheap, nontoxic sleep aid. Find a spray with real lavender essence or oil and spritz it on your pillow before bedtime or try a lavender-filled pillow.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Biomarker for ASD

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are classified as neurological developmental disorders. Several studies have been carried out to find a candidate biomarker linked to the development of these disorders, but until recently none was known. Findings from a relatively new study suggest suggest that ASD, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder share etiologic risk factors. The results were very consistent in large samples from several different countries (e.g., Sweden, Israel) and led researchers to believe that autism and schizophrenia are more similar than had been previously thought. 
Here are examples of findings:

1.  The presence of schizophrenia in parents was associated with an almost three times increased risk for autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) in groups from both Stockholm and all of Sweden.

2.  The risk of an autism spectrum disorder may be higher among people whose parents or siblings have been diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

3.  Schizophrenia in a sibling was associated with roughly 2.5 times the risk for autism in the Swedish national group and a 12 times greater risk in a sample of Israeli military conscripts. Bipolar disorder showed a similar pattern of association but of a lesser magnitude.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Breathe for Your Brain

Someone asked the other day how it was that the brain needed oxygen? An article in Scientific American by Nikhil Swaminathan explains that the brain uses oxygen to produce usable energy from glucose. Known as ATP, this usable energy is needed for electrical functions, neurotransmitter functions, and housekeeping-maintenance functions in the brain. Turns out that when glucose brain fuel is burned without adequate oxygen, only 5% as much ATP energy is produced as compared to the process when glucose is burned with aequate oxygen. So take deep breaths several times a day. Give your brain all the oxygen it needs to make effective use of glucose. You need the energy to think and to make decisions!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Recession and Fertility Rates

Conventional wisdom is that prolonged stress can influence fertility. A recent blurb in the Harvard Business Review reported that as the European Economy lags there has been a corresponding decline in fertility rates. Fifteen of 22 European Union countries have shown a fertility decline since the financial crisis started in 2008.  According to the Wall Street Journal, this is in sharp contrast with increased fertility rates in 19 of the countries for the three years prior to the financial crisis. Supposedly, for a country's population to remain stable,  a 2.1 fertility rate needs to be maintained.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Choices and Energy

There seems to be a difference in terms of brain energy expenditures between comtemplating options and actually makes choices. In one study by Yale University Professor Nathan Novemsky and his colleagues, participants who were asked to rate the attractiveness of different options were much less depleted of brain energy than were participants who were asked to actually make choices between the very same options.  It requires more brain executive resources to switch from a state of deliberating to a state of implementation. It takes more energy to transition from thinking about options to actually following through on a decision. Since making choices appears to deplete the brain's executive resources, subsequent decisions may be affected adversely if you are forced to choose with a fatigued brain.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Take Good Care of Your Neurons

Most cells in the body reproduce continually throughout a lifetime. Some don't (e.g., heart cells, skeletal muscle cells). Turns out that after the brain reaches its full complement of neurons somewhere around two years of age, its neurons never reproduce, either. You pretty much have what you have at that point and your neurons need to last for your entire lifetime. They are dependent on a continuous and uninterrupted blood supply to bring them oxygen and glucose. At most, brain neurons can store only a minute or two worth of glucose. In addition, they typically can only burn glucose (while cells in other parts of the body are able to burn either glucose or fat). Give them good sources of glucose and plenty of oxygen because they need adequate oxygen to burn glucose effectively.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Happy Birthday to Me

I know, it sounds a bit funny wishing myself a happy birthday. However, I've finally decided--this is my last birthday before I retire from my career in healthcare. It's been a tough decision because I like much of what I do in the healthcare arena. But I also would like to spend more time studying the brain and writing and speaking about its amazing functions and traveling to places I've not yet seen and so on. Therefore, it's happy birthday to me.  I'll tell my cousins the news at dinner tonight . . .