Sunday, March 31, 2013

CLBP and Impaired Brain Function

According to some sources, chronic low back pain (CLBP) is the most common form of chronic pain and has been associated with abnormal brain anatomy and function. When compared with pain-free individuals in the control group, individuals with CLBP have been shown to have reductions in cortical gray matter in several areas of the brain including the prefrontal cortex. And it’s not just CLBP. Cortical abnormalities have been identified in individuals with a wide variety of other chronic pain conditions, such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, and chronic headache. I recall my mother saying, “When my head hurts, I just can't think straight." An article published in the Journal of Neuroscience reported on a recent study at McGill University, the findings of which associated chronic pain with reduced brain gray matter and impaired cognitive ability. This may provide some impetus for those who struggle with chronic pain (especially chronic back pain) to take another look at strategies that may reduce the pain, with the view to improving brain function. The good news, according to the researchers, is that brain activity seemed to normalize after successful pain treatment. In fact, the title of the article was definite: "Effective treatment of chronic low back pain reversed the abnormal brain anatomy and function."

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Lessons from Mother #1

Some time ago, a friend of mine sent me a list of “tongue-in-cheek lessons” that I found absolutely hilarious. Every time I think about some of these, and recall similar admonition from my mother or grandmother, I break into mirthful laughter. I’ll include a few of these from time to time in a blog. Send me some of the lessons your mother taught you and we can expand the list.

• My mother taught me about prayer: “You better pray that stain comes out of my dress!”

• My mother taught me about logic: “Because I said so, that’s why!”

• My mother taught me about consequences: “If you fall out of that tree and break your neck, you are not going to summer camp!”

• My mother taught me about imagination: “Your father and I are not paying higher electric bills just to keep a light burning in your room. Close your eyes and imagine the light is on!”

• My mother taught me about reasons for overeating: “You can leave the table when you’ve eaten everything on your plate. Just think about all the starving children in China!”

Friday, March 29, 2013

Mirthful Laughter and Adrenalin

More and more studies are showing positive effects from mirthful laughter, especially on substances such as cortisol (more about that in another blog) and epinephrine, more commonly known as adrenalin in the USA). When the human organism is subjected to some types of stressors such as bright lights, noise, high levels of excitement, high ambient temperature or physical threat, adrenalin is released in an effort to help the body respond to the stressor(s). Both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, adrenalin is a key component of the fight-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system to stressors. While the regulating of a variety of functions in the body by adrenalin can be initially helpful, when its secretion continues beyond what is absolutely needed to handle the stressor, adverse effects can be seen in the brain and body.  No doubt you’ve experienced some of these or know someone who has (e.g., racing heart or irregular heartbeat, higher blood pressure, anxiety, shaking or tremor, and headache). Enter mirthful laughter. Studies published in the American Journal of the Medical Science reported that participants who had a mirthful laughter experience while watching a 60-minute humor video, showed reduced serum levels of adrenalin. This biochemical change, therefore, has implications for helping to reverse the classical stress hormone response. Had a stressful event or a stressful day? Spend some recovery time in mirthful laughter!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Texting, Driving, and BAC

The controversy about the dangers of texting or some hands-free talking behind the wheel continues to rage. Well, results of an experiment by Scientists from Australian universities in collaboration with the University of Barcelona has shown that using a handsfree kit or sending text messages while driving a vehicle is the same as being above the legal alcohol limit. The findings of the current laboratory study suggest that very simple conversations on a mobile phone may not represent a significant driving risk (compared to a legally permissible blood alcohol concentration or BAC), whereas cognitively demanding, hands-free conversation, and particularly texting, represent significant risks to driving. When the conversation using the hands-free was simple, the effects were comparable to a BAC level of 0.04 g/l, which is below the legal limit of 0.5 g/l in countries like Spain and Australia. However, when the telephone conversation required high cognitive demand, their equivalent alcohol level analog shot up to 0.7 g/l, which was above legal limits in both Spain and Australia (0.5 gram/litre), yet below countries, like the USA or the UK, where BAC up to 0.8 g/l is allowed. However, when texting, the level shot up to 1 g/l, which is illegal in all of the countries mentioned.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Schizophrenia and Working Memory

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a non-invasive procedure that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells. It does not require sedation or anesthesia and patients remain awake, reclined in a chair, while treatment is administered through coils placed near the forehead. In 2008, the FDA approved the use of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) to treat depression in patients who don’t respond to pharmacotherapy. Recently, in a randomized controlled trial, University of Toronto scientists found evidence that stimulating the brain using rTMS may be an effective strategy to improve cognitive function for patients with schizophrenia. Problems with working memory has represented a core cognitive domain that is impaired in schizophrenia and for which there have been no satisfactory treatments. In this study, researchers found that rTMS not only improved working memory in patients after four (4) weeks, but the improvement was to a level comparable to healthy subjects.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Temporal Doppler Effect

The Temporal Doppler effect, so called, can be defined as a personal perception that events in the future seem closer than those in the past. Research conducted by psychological scientist Eugene Caruso of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and colleagues and published in Psychological Science, has shown that you tend to feel closer to the future because you sense you are moving toward it. There has been an implicit assumption that distance to the past is the same as distance to the future. And although philosophers may continue to debate the directionality of time, Caruso’s studies suggest that your subjective experience of time is clearly directional and that there is a systematic difference in people’s perceptions of distance to the past and the future.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Brain and Food Consumption

Are you looking for tips to help you maintain a healthy, normal weight? Try this! Tturn off the TV, stop playing games, and avoid reading while you are eating. Pay clear intentional awareness of what you are eating, how fast you are eating, and how much you are eating (as opposed to eating while being distracted). Eric Robinson and colleagues from the University of Liverpool, UK, researched and analyzed 24 scientific studies that were done between 1997 and 2011. Each involved a researcher who actively manipulated the attention, memory and awareness of eating food of normal-weight study participants. The researchers found statistically significant differences between how much distracted participants ate versus those who were undistracted. On average:

1. Eating while distracted increased the amount of food a participant ate by about 10%, as compared to eating while not distracted

2. Eating while distracted increased the amount of food a participant ate at a later meal by more than 25 %

3. Intentional recall of food consumed at an earlier meal (while currently eating a meal) reduced the amount consumed at a subsequent meal by about 10% (but not during the current meal)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Exorphins versus Endorphins

Do you have an emotional attachment to wheat products? Maybe it has more to do with exorphins¾exogenous opioid peptides. Let’s dissect that label a bit: Exogenous (originates from outside the body) opioid (substances with a morphine-like activity) peptides (a class of neurotransmitters that impact mood). Exorphins are distinguished from endorphins that are endogenous opioid peptides that originate inside the brain and body. Turns out that these exorphins are found in some foods. William Davis, MD, author of Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health, offers a rather convincing argument that wheat can be mildly addictive because it contains these exorphin compounds that affect the brain in much the same way as do opiates. No wonder some individuals find it difficult to reduce their intake of bread, pasta, cereals, donuts, muffins, bagels, and so on. Dairy products may contain exorphins, as well . . .

Friday, March 22, 2013

Nuts, Heart disease, and Cancer

Nuts are good for the brain but multiple studies have also shown other benefits. For example, the 1990's Adventist Health Study of a large population of California Seventh Day Adventists found that in addition to reducing the risk of heart attack by up to 60%, eating nuts was one of the four top factors for extending longevity. What types of nuts were eaten: about 32 percent were peanuts, 29 percent were almonds, 16 percent were walnuts, and 23 percent were other types. Experiments where volunteers were fed nuts as part of their diet for several weeks have found that walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pistachio nuts, and macadamia nuts all alter the composition of the blood in ways that would be expected to reduce coronary risk.  And in the Nurses' Health Study, peanuts, which are really legumes, were found to be just as effective in reducing the risk of coronary heart disease as tree nuts. Nuts do contain fat. However, in the Nurses' Health Study, the frequent nut consumers were actually a little thinner on average than those who almost never consumed nuts, and daily supplements of almonds or peanuts for six months resulted in little or no increase in body weight. The belief is that nuts may satisfy hunger, provide a wealth of nutrients, and create a feeling of comfort, which may result in an overall decrease in food consumption.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

PTSD and Co-occurring Disorders

A large-scale study of PTSD by the military found that 88% of males and 79% of females also met criteria for another co-occurring disorder. The types of disorders differed based on gender. For example,

• Males: alcohol dependence or abuse (51.9%); major depressive episodes (47.9%); conduct disorders (43.3%); drug abuse and dependence (34.5%)

• Females: major depressive disorders (48.5%); simple phobias (29.0%); social phobias (28.4%); alcohol abuse (27.9%)

Many don’t realize that there are co-occurring disorders. Sometimes the individuals are treated for symptoms (e.g., chest pain, dizziness, body-part discomfort, immune system problems, GI complaints, headaches) without anyone realizing that the symptoms likely stem from the PTSD.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Music and Memory

Memory is a current topic of interest, especially in terms of anti-aging strategies. Multiple studies have confirmed the benefits of studying music and of learning how to play a musical instrument. Now it appears that music memory may be stored differently in the brain from other types of memory, more independently. A study presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world‘s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health, suggests that the acquisition, long-term retention, and retrieval of semantic musical information may be possible even in specific types of cases of severe amnesia. Just one more reason to take some music lessons and practice for 15-30 minutes a day...

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cultural and Brain Function

MIT Researchers Hedden and Gabrieli used fMRI to study the brains of Americans and East Asians while they were asked to make fast, perceptual judgments. For example, participants were shown a series of differently sized squares, each of which had a single line drawn inside of it, and were asked to judge whether the line-to-square proportion was the same or different from one square to the next (e.g., a relative judgment). Then they were asked to judge whether the lines were the same length regardless of the squares surrounding them (e.g., an absolute judgment of individual objects). Although all types of brains used the same neural systems, they differed in the amount of energy expended. American brains used more energy when making relative judgments and less energy when making absolute judgments. The brains of East Asians showed the exact opposite. Their brains used more energy when making absolute judgments about individual objects and less energy when making relative judgments about relationships.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Bejeweled and the Brain

I’ve been playing some non-action games on my iPhone while traveling by plane to one destination or another. Bejeweled has become a favorite and I’ve been quite sure my performance has been steadily improving. Research published this month in the open-access journal PLOS ONE has concluded that different games enhance different aspects of cognition. Participants were asked to play five different games on their smartphones for an hour a day, five days a week, for one month. Participants who played games involving finding hidden objects, matching three objects (e.g., Bejeweled), and spatial memory improved their performance on visual search tasks. Participants who played an action game had improved their capacity to track multiple objects in a short span of time. But what does what? The study authors concluded that many video-game-related cognitive improvements may not be due to training of general broad cognitive systems such as executive attentional control, but instead due to frequent utilization of specific cognitive processes during game play. Either way, I like Bejewled . . .

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Walnuts, Brain, and Sperm

Results from studies at Andrews University, led by Peter Pribis, associate professor of nutrition and wellness, and published in the British Journal of Nutrition, have shown that walnuts may be a key brain food. Eating walnuts regularly can increase critical thinking, specifically inferential reasoning. (Inferential reasoning can be defined as the ability to infer truth from other known truth and it is also the ability to deduce information based on prior experience and context.) According to Pribis, students who ate half cup of walnuts a day for eight weeks showed an 11.2 percent increase in inferential reasoning skills. That works out to the difference between an A or a B, or a B and a C. (I prefer raw or dry roasted.) And it’s not just the brain! According to research published in the medical journal Biology of Reproduction, eating a couple of handfuls of walnuts a day can improve the health of sperm. Sperm shape, movement and overall vitality improved in men who added walnuts to their diets over the course of 12 weeks.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Intelligence-Creativity Connection

Do you think you’re intelligent but not very creative, or you're creative but not very intelligent, or have you bought into myths around creativity? Three myths can be especially problematic. One: Only special people are creative. False. Every human brain contains tremendous capacities for creativity, although not every person develops those capacities. Two: Creativity involves special activities only, like art, design, or advertising. False. You can be creative at anything including math, science, engineering, sports, running, a business, and handling relationship. Three: The human brain is either creative or not. False. You can hone creativity skills and become increasingly creative in your life and work. Creativity and intelligence are first cousins, blood relatives. When you are acting creatively you tend to be acting intelligently. In a similar way, the highest form of intelligence is thinking creatively. Avoid underestimating your brain. Take a step back and realize that your own unique power of imagination is a fundamental feature of human intelligence and, therefore, of creativity.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Liver-Brain Connection

Did you know that fried foods may impact your liver much as does hepatitis? According to Dr. Drew Ordon of “The Doctors" and author of the book, "Better in 7," new information has shown that fried foods impact more than just your over-all weight and levels of cholesterol. Studies showed that consistently eating fatty foods from fast food restaurants for just one month led to significant changes in liver enzymes similar to damage seen by hepatitis¾and these changes can ultimately lead to liver failure. Three key offenders were French fries, fried onion rings, and fried chicken. And the relationship of the liver to your brain? The liver is designed to cleanse the blood of neurotoxins and other substances that could potentially damage brain cells. The liver also is believed to provide some specific nutrients that the brain itself does not seem to produce. Bottom line? Normal brain functioning appears to depend on several aspects of normal liver functioning. I rarely ingest fried foods—they pretty much have just gotten bumped from my menu!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Food Brain Messages

As I'm sure you are aware, more and more information is being released about nutrition and the brain, including an emphasis on moving toward Mediterranean cuisine as an anti-aging strategy. Along with that, it's time you dumped some of the food messages you brain may have received during childhood. For example: "Clean your plate before you leave the table." With the portion size in many restaurants this advice is a prescription for overeating. Or how about, "Finish your vegetables if you want any desert." The message to the brain is that desert is desirable and there is something basically boring with vegetables. You might want to take a close look at the admonitions running through your brain. Record positive messages as needed, such as: "I put appropriate amounts of food on my plate, eat slowly, masticate thoroughly, and stop eating as soon as I am satisfied."  Or, "I am enjoying vegetables and they are improving my brain function. Two bites of desert are okay once in awhile, too." Help yourself be successful. ONLY have healthy foods in your house. Shrbert rather than high-fat ice cream; baked vegie chips instead of deep fried. It only takes about three weeks of consistency to retrain your taste buds, as long as you are not sabotaging the learning with unhelpful messages. If you have children and grandchildren, they watch you eat. Give them healthy rolemodeling. Matter of fact, your own mirror neurons watch you eat . . .

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Adult ADHD - 20-year Study

Findings from the first ever population-based study to follow children with ADHD into adulthood (a 20-years study by Mayo Clinic) are published in the April 2013 issue of Pediatrics. According to Dr. William Barbaresi , lead author, ADHD is by far the most common neurodevelopmental disorder in childhood.” It is characterized by trouble with inattentiveness, hyperactive behavior or impulsiveness, and sometimes a combination of all three. Study findings indicated that approximately 30% of children with ADHD will continue to have it as a chronic problem in adulthood, and 80% of those adults typically have at least one other condition (e.g., substance abuse, major depression, anxiety, anti-social behaviors). Over the next year or so, Barbaresi and his team expect to release more study findings, including statistics on relationships, education, employment, and psycho-social outcomes evidenced by adults with chronic ADHD. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have indicated that up to 9.5% of children between the ages of 4 and 17 have been reported as having ADHD.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Genetic Links to ADHD

A new study recently published in the Lancet, British medical journal, reported that an international group of scientists have identified some genetic links between several conditions: ADHD, autism, depression, manic-depression (bi-polar), and schizophrenia. This could help explain the reason that some of these diagnoses seem to cluster in families. Smoller, a psychiatry professor at Massachusetts General Hospital, explained that the portions of the genome identified (that appeared to increase the risk for these five conditions) also seemed to be involved in how calcium channels operate in the brain, which impact how brain cells communicate. The exciting news is that putting this information together raises the possibility that treatments targeting those calcium channels might have a positive impact on the brain. I was discussing this with a cousin and her comment was, “And we thought it was all in our head!” Well, it is! The good news is that since depressive disorders have been identified somewhat frequently in my own maternal line, this information may help to explain the commonality. And even better, it may eventually provide more effective treatments.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Three Types of ADHD

An increasing body of researched information is being released about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Many symptoms associated with ADHD are seen in non-ADHD children from time to time. In ADHD children, however, the symptoms occur frequently, are seen in more than one environment (e.g., at home, at school, when visiting friends), and interfere with their ability to function normally. Following are three types of ADHD, with symptoms that must be age-appropriate:

1. Combined ADHD - involves both inattentiveness and hyperactivity-impulsivity symptoms and is the most common type

2. Inattentive ADHD (formerly known as ADD) - marked by symptoms of impaired attention and concentration

3. Hyperactive-impulsive ADHD - characterized by hyperactivity-impulsivity symptoms without inattentiveness

In children, ADHD may be diagnosed when typical symptom have been exhibited consistently for a minimum of six months in at least two different settings (e.g., at home and at school). Watch my next two blogs for some recently released findings.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

HIRREM Brain Sessions

No, that's not a typo. It's an acronym for a new technology: high-resolution, relational, resonance-based electroencephalic mirroring. (No wonder that mouthful needed an acronym!) HIRREM, sometimes referred to as brain optimization, is a noninvasive procedure that has been designed to reflect the brain's frequencies back to the brain. Based on the premise that the human brain is the master regulator of all human experience, improved self-regulation is thought to be the most efficacious way to attain greater well-being. Hirrem uses mirroring but instead of visual images it converts information about brainwave energy into musical sounds that are played back to the brain in real time. As the brain receives this information it can recognize its own patterns of imbalance or disharmony and begin to shift toward greater balance and harmony. How might HIRREM be used? In treating insomnia, for one. Researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine gave insomnia-sufferers eight to twelve HIRREM sessions over a three-week period. Clients who received HIRREM sessions experienced a significant reduction in insomnia symptoms (compared with a control group that received standard care that did not include HIRREM. Results lasted over a four-week
period of follow-up.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Insomnia Foods #3

Did you know that Indian curry and other heavy spices can keep you awake at night? In a study conducted in Australia, young men who poured Tabasco sauce and mustard on their dinner had more trouble falling asleep and experienced less deep sleep than men who ate blander dinners. Spices can also cause heartburn so avoid them in late-day meals. Blander definitely appears to be better in the hours before you intend to fall asleep. Relegate heavy spices to earlier in the day. Avoid combining spicy and high-fat foods in a late-day meal, too. Together, they can give you twice the potential for sleep-wrecking.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Your Thoughts and Happiness

Have you ever said to yourself, “I can’t be happy because _____________.? That’s a most unfortunate communication to your brain. A sense of happiness does not depend on circumstances alone. Happiness depends largely on how you prepare yourself for everyday living and the way in which you react to circumstances. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2010) reported that some adversity can actually make you stronger. Individuals who have experienced some adversity have the advantage of being toughened up to take on challenges later in life. They tend to be happier than those who have not experienced some adversity. Those experiences of adversity can function as doorways to positive change, as long as you view them as learning experiences and building blocks to achievement, and avoid getting caught in the mire of “I can’t be happy because _____________.” Balderdash! Of course you can! Feelings always follow thoughts. Think empowering thoughts and choose to be happy.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Dump Unwanted Thoughts

What can you do to stop thinking unpleasant thoughts? According to Richard Petty PhD, professor of  psychology at Ohio state and coauthor of a recent study, you can simply throw them away. For example, in this series of experiments, people who had unwanted and unpleasant thoughts, wrote these thoughts down on a piece of paper. Then they promptly tore the paper in pieces and threw it away. As the brain observed them discarding the paper, it discarded the unwanted thoughts mentally, as well. The people who did not tear up and discard the paper but stuck it in a pocket instead, were more likely to refer back to the thoughts. And if you've written down the unwanted thought and shredded it and it comes back, write it down and dump it again . . .

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

FOXP2 Gene and Language

Studies identifying the association of the gene associated with language in humans, FOXP2, have also discovered that this gene plays a part in language expression in other species. Four-day old male rats were found to have more FOXP2 in their brains than female rats. No surprise, the males made more noise than females. However, when researchers increased the levels of the protein in the female pups and decreased it in the male pups, this sex diference was reversed. Other studies have shown that this "language protein" plays an important role in vocal communication in birds. And in a study of this brain protein in a small group of children, sex differences in the level of FOXP2 were discovered. What does this mean? For one thing, it raises the possibility that sex differences in brain and behavior are established earlier than previously thought and are more pervasive. My brain's opinion? Differences are here to stay. You can recognize them, learn to work with them, enjoy the differences, and have fun with them--or not.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Brain, Gender, and Speech

The average woman speaks more words per day than the average male. Some studies have shown that women talk at least three times as much as men. Other studies have shown that women tend to speak more quickly and devote a larger portion of brainpower to speaking. There have always been questions regarding the contribution of socialization versus biology. Researchers at the University of Maryland School of medicine have been studying a gene that was discovered in 2001¾FOXP2 appears to be essential for the production of speech. Study results (published in The journal of Neuroscience) have shown that the brains of girls have 30% more of this FOXP2 protein. Possessing more of this "language protein" in their brains could help explain the reason females are more talkative and perhaps the reason they also tend to be better at small talk. Each person has his or her own opinion of whether this is good or bad. Someone asked, "Is there a cure?" My response was, "A cure for what? It is what it is." 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Brain Size vs Function, Part 1

A recent PBS special has pointed out that big is not necessarily better when it comes to brain function. Studies have shown that the ability to makes tools requires a high level of thinking. So far, this ability has been identified in humans, elephants, chimpanzees—and crows, especially a group of crows indigenous to New Zealand. Relatively speaking, crows have very tiny brains. Nevertheless, they can figure out how to make a tool to make another tool to get food. They also can learn ways to adapt to change, which they teach to their offspring, that in turn pass the knowledge to the next generation. Not only that, they have a fairly sophisticaed family system. A pair, mated for life, rely on extended family members to help feed, protect, and teach the fledglings. Because their tiny brains appear to function much the same as chimps, researchers have referred to crows as “feathered apes.”

Friday, March 1, 2013

Musician Brains and Birthday Anniversaries

I love music. My Aunt Isabelle put that down to the fact that my mother (her younger sister) played the piano and sang songs for at least thirty minutes a day during my entire pregnancy. There may be something to that. Studies have shown that babies prefer the types of food their mothers ate during gestation. Reportedly I was begging for a piano by age three and by age four, a sturdy Frenchman in Montreal strapped a piano to his back and hauled it up 57 stairs to our apartment. I have had the privilege to become personally acquainted with several individuals who I consider musical outliers. Roger Williams (born Louis Jacob Weertz) was one. I fell in love with his piano arrangement of “Autumn Leaves” when I was ten years old and remember telling my mother how happy I was that he had been born. David H. Hegarty is another (he did not change his name). Composer, arranger, organ-piano artist, I fell in love with his music the first time I heard him play circa 1976. What is it that makes us catch a breath as we listen to the sounds their brains envision, assembled in a way that has never quite been done before? That’s the mystery of the human brain, both from the position of the artist as well as the listener. And both are enriched in differing ways. Roger’s birthday was October 3rd and until his death in 2011 at 87, we exchanged letters and cards. David’s birthday is March 1st. I’m glad he was born, too. Happy Birthday!