Monday, June 30, 2014

Auditory Illusions and Your Brain (plus your ears)

An auditory illusion can be thought of as a distortion of sound or a misinterpretation of sound. An auditory illusion is the sound equivalent of a visual or optical illusion. Auditory illusions seem to be less common than optical illusions, perhaps because only 20% of the population is estimated to have an auditory preference (sounds register in their brains faster and more intensely than other types of sensory data). In an auditory illusion, the listener hears either “impossible” sounds or sounds that are not actually present in the stimulus. The McGurk effect is one example. This 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. The Shepard tone is another example: an auditory illusion of a tone that continuously descends, while really not getting any lower. You can hear an example of the Shepard illusion at the following URL.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Gender Differences in Depression, 3

The results of a new study led by Lisa A. Martin, PhD, was published in JAMA Psychiatry. Researchers analyzed data from a national mental health survey involving 3,310 women and 2,382 men. Researchers also looked for alternative symptoms. They wanted to observe whether the sex differences in the incidence of depression would change when alternative symptoms were considered alongside more conventional ones (e.g., men reported higher rates of anger attacks/aggression, substance abuse, and risk taking compared with women). Results showed that when both traditional and alternative symptoms were accounted for, men and women met the criteria for depression in equal measures, with 30.6% of men and 33.3% of the women in the study classified as depressed. Interestingly, their findings showed that male-type symptoms of depression are also common in women. As a result, asking both men and women questions about irritability, anger, and substance abuse is equally important when identifying depression.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Gender Differences in Depression, 2

What are symptoms of depression in females? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a long list of possible symptoms of depression in woman may include:

·         Persistent sad, anxious or “empty” feelings
·         Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
·         Irritability, restlessness, anxiety
·         Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and/or helplessness
·         Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
·         Fatigue and decreased energy
·         Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
·         Insomnia, waking up during the night, or excessive sleeping
·         Overeating, or appetite loss
·         Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
·         Persistent aches, pains, headaches, cramps, digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment

Part 3 tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Gender Differences in Depression

Depression is a problem worldwide. According to data from the WHO, the World Health Organization, upwards of 350 million people suffer from depression. According to the CDC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every ten adults in the U.S. is depressed. That’s not good. Conventional wisdom has said that females are diagnosed at least twice as often as are males. While that may be true, receiving a diagnosis of depression can be very different from whether or not a state of depression exists in a given brain. First, males typically access healthcare less often than females. And second, according to Lisa A. Martin, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, “When men are depressed they may experience symptoms that are different than what is included in current diagnostic criteria.” 
Part 2 tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Gender Brains and Crying Baby, 2

According to Marc Bornstein, his studies have found that being an attentive parent has its rewards, showing that “Increased attention of the good kind is good for both parties, parents and children. Children come to feel valued, affirmed and approved of when their parents pay attention to them, and they benefit cognitively, for example, from parental responsiveness and teaching. Parents get rewarded from their children’s development and achievements, and by attending to them, parents get to know their children better and so become better parents, as long as the attention is of the good kind.” This information could be useful for new mothers, including the 12% who experience post-partum depression, helping to alert them of the need to be more vigilant about their new baby. It could also prompt fathers of the need to be more attentive to their newborn. You can find the study report at the following link.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Gender Brains and Crying Baby

Some women have complained that the males in the family seem to ignore the cries of a hungry baby or at least are slow to respond. It appears there are some brain differences that can help account for this. Marc Bornstein, head of child and family research at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is doing a series of studies to help better understand what he calls the parenting brain. Study results were published in the Journal Neuroreport. For purposes of the experiment, a group of eighteen men and women were encouraged to let their minds wander while researchers played recordings of white noise mixed with an infant’s cries. Brain scans showed that the infant’s cries abruptly raised attention levels in the women’s brains but the men’s brains remained in a resting state. More on the implications tomorrow. Meantime, if you’d like to listen to the clip from the research study, here is the URL.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Male Brain and Parenting, 5

It has be interesting to read results of research led by Eyal Abraham of Bar-Ilan University and recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It’s also been interesting to read comments about the study conclusions. Here are two.

As a man spends more time caring for his firstborn child, his brain responds to the rigors and pleasures of child care more and more like that of a woman who is a child's primary caregiver. ―Susannah Kay, Los Angeles Times

Whether a part-time or full-time caregiver, the father’s brains responded and activated in ways similar to the mother’s. The difference was there the neural activity occurred. The fMRI scans revealed that: The emotional processing circuits were most active in mothers. Part-time fathers in male/female relationships showed the most activity in the areas responsible for interpreting and responding to social cues. Full-time caregiving gay fathers showed activity in both regions, and even showed cross talk between those areas.  ―Amen Clinics

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Male Brain and Parenting, 4

When evaluating parenting and brain function activation in three groups of individuals, Eyal Abraham of Bar-Ilan University and colleagues found that primary care-giving mothers showed greater activation in emotion processing structures, correlated with oxytocin and parent-infant synchrony. In comparison, secondary care-giving fathers displayed greater activation in cortical mental circuits, associated with oxytocin and parenting. And when interacting with a baby, the gay male brain of a primary care-giving parent showed brain activation that resembled both those identified in the brains of primary care-giving mothers and in the brains of secondary care-giving fathers. Some believe that the “female brain may come prewired to nurture babies.” Perhaps this may be based on the observation that child-care in most cultures is primarily relegated to female brains. Bottom line? Quality parenting is a learned skill and male brains—straight or gay—can learn those skills if they want to and hone those skills with practice. Part 5 tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Male Brain and Parenting, 3

Studies led by Eyal Abraham of Bar-Ilan University to investigate parenting behaviors revealed that parenting implemented a global ‘parental caregiving’ neural network that was mainly consistent across parents. fMRI showed parenting integrated the functioning of two systems: the emotional processing network (including subcortical and paralimbic structures associated with vigilance, salience, reward, and motivation), and the mentalizing network (involving frontopolar-medial-prefrontal and temporo-parietal circuits implicated in social understanding and cognitive empathy). These two networks work together to imbue infant care with emotional salience, attune with the infant state, and plan adequate parenting. fMRI results showed that males and females used similar brain networks when they were parenting but their brains showed differing patterns of activation. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Male Brain and Parenting, 2

The results of research, led by Eyal Abraham of Bar-Ilan University, were recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The purpose of the study was to investigate parenting behavior in three groups of individuals: primary-caregiving mothers, secondary-caregiving fathers, and primary-caregiving homosexual fathers raising infants without maternal involvement. To do this, the researchers visited 89 first-time parents. They watched as the parents interacted with their babies, as they interacted with their babies, videotaped some of those interactions, and measured parental levels of oxytocin. (Oxytocin is a hormone that is involved with behaviors related to nurturing, trust, affection, and bonding.) Later on, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) researchers scanned the brains of the parents as they watched the video of themselves with their babies as well as videos of other parents interacting with their own children. 
Part 3 tomorrow.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Male Brain and Parenting

I trust all you fathers had a happy day on Sunday. This week I’m focusing on newly reported research that applies to fathers, and some aspects that apply to males in general. According to an article by Melissa Healy in the Los Angeles Times, “Parenting a small child requires the forethought of a crisis planner, the reflexes of a professional goalkeeper, the energy of a cheerleader and the empathy of a therapist.” Having done my share of pounding nails as well as parenting, I’d say she’s pretty much hit the nail on the head. Although contemporary socio-cultural changes dramatically increased fathers' involvement in childrearing, little has been known about the brain basis of human fatherhood, its comparability with the maternal brain, and its sensitivity to caregiving experiences. In addition, some have questioned gay-male parenting in the absence of a female parent. Eyal Abraham of Bar-Ilan University, and his associates, decided to investigate this. 
Part 2 tomorrow. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Virtual Rehearsal and the Brain, 2

Yesterday I shared with you a success story about 'virtual rehearsal' when a couple of little piano students had no piano in their home. This was my response.  According to some studies, many people operate on the ideas and beliefs they absorbed by the age of five, often subconsciously. For example, when I was a little girl someone told me that Galileo ran afoul of the religious establishment because he said the world was round, not flat. That little ‘fact’ has been lodged in my brain all this time. It turns out that Galileo did run afoul of the religious establishment but for a different reason: he proposed that the earth revolved around the sun and that ran contrary to the belief system of the day. You only know what you know and the only brain you know if your own, filled with its own beliefs. That’s what is so exciting about brain-function research! Sometimes emerging research conclusions run contrary to what you have believed or assumed. When practically applied, however, brain-function information does work, sometimes amazingly well. Most people have little concept of how they could cooperate with their brains and minds (yes, they are separate entities) to be more successful. And in case you are wondering how the brain and mind differ, scientists seem to be clear that somehow the brain creates the mind, but exactly how that happens is an ongoing puzzle. Not only that, once it has been created, the mind is able to influence the brain. Amazing. One of the best metaphors I’ve heard compares this phenomenon to traffic. Vehicles create traffic. In turn, traffic can constrain and impede movement of the vehicles. Hmmm.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Virtual Rehearsal and the Brain, 1

I recently received an email that read something like this. Not long ago I read something about how you learned to practice the vibraharp in your mind when you didn’t have access to the actual instrument. I think you called it ‘virtual rehearsal.’ At first I thought this idea was ridiculous. (You don’t even want to know a few of the comments I made.) Well, I’ve since changed my mind. I teach piano and two of my little students have no piano in their home. They are able to practice on their grandmother’s piano—but not every day. I decided to give this idea a try. I mean, it couldn’t hurt, right? Although I was not sure it could help, either. I told these little piano students to practice at home in their minds (with their open music books) on the days when they are unable to practice on their grandmother's piano. They were, of course, almost as astounded by this instruction as I was by the concept. Guess what has happened? They have discovered that “virtual rehearsal” works and are making progress by leaps and bounds. Naturally, I am so pleased . . . and grateful. You also said once that “What you don’t know you don’t even know can limit your options and sometimes cause you a great deal of trouble.” This ‘virtual rehearsal’ experience was a great object lesson to me and has encouraged me to be more open minded. Again, as you said, “No one can know everything.” What do you think made my brain so ready to brush off this information?." My response tomorrow.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Kissed by a Dolphin

Being kissed by an Australian sea lion, neophoca cinerea, an endangered species was a very interesting experience. So was being kissed by a dolphin! Two kisses in the same day by two different sea mammals.
The feel against my skin of the dolphin’s rostrum or snout, however, was very different from the feel of the sea lion’s nose. While the sea lion’s nose was unbelievably soft, the dolphin’s rostrum felt more like soft, smooth rubber. Thank you, Susan Magaitis, for introducing me to Dolphin Marine Magic and to these lovely mammals—up close and personal.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Kissed by a Sea Lion

At Dolphin Marine Magic in Coffs Harbor, Australia, I met my first Australian sea lion, neophoca cinerea. An absolutely beautiful creature in my brain’s opinion—an endangered species—I met one of them up, up close and personal. So personal I was kissed, no less. I will always remember the unbelievable softness of its snout as it pressed against my cheek; a lovely experience! More tomorrow.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Dolphin Marine Magic

Recently while in Australia, my friend Susan took me to visit Dolphin Marine Magic in Coffs Harbor. That was my first introduction Australian sea lions (neophoca cinerea). First discovered on Kangaroo Island , this species was hunted primarily for its oil and skins throughout the 18-19th centuries until it became commercially extinct. Currently listed as a threatened species under the Commonwealth Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999) of Australia, they are now protected. This species of sea lion is one of the rarest pinnipeds in the world and is found only within the waters of two states within Australia. As such  it has one of the smaller ranges of pinnipeds worldwide, as well. Fortunately, Dolphin Marine Magic has a few of these gorgeous creatures, several having been born at the park so visitors can see them up close and personal. It is good for the brain to be exposed to new and different creatures. Travel to see new sights, hear new sounds, smell new odors, taste new tastes, and feel new touch, is an age-proofing strategy. More tomorrow. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

TBI - 4

People often ask, "What happens in the brain with sports-related Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI)?" You may be familiar with the terms "neuron" and "axon." Neurons are the thinking cells that have an enhanced ability to transfer information from one neuron to another. Axons are the largest projection from a neuron. Most neurons have only one axon (and some can be a meter in length, running from the brain to the tip of the toe). Some axons are wrapped with a special insulation called myelin. These myelinated axons are able to transmit information to other neurons much more quickly than non-myelinated axons. Damage to the axons is one of the most common features of TBIs. Douglas H. Smith and David F. Meaney from the Department of Neurosurgery, U of Pennsylvania, reported their research in an article entitled: "Axonal Damage in Traumatic Brain Injury." The researchers found that axons are very susceptible to mechanical injury. They can swell, become brittle and break, and/or develop other neuropathologic changes. Yes, the brain can often heal following a TBI. However, damage from repeated blows to the head or from repeated falls in which the head strikes another object appear to be cumulative. This is a clear case of "prevention is better than cure."

Thursday, June 5, 2014

TBI - 3

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) that results in disability is seen more often than one would wish. The name Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.; 1942)  comes to mind. Some consider among the greatest American heavyweights in the history of boxing. By the 1980's, Ali was already beginning to exhibit symptoms that included vocal stutters and trembling hands and by 1984 it was reported that he was suffering from pugilistic Parkinson's disease, common to head trauma from activities such as boxing. Eventually he would lose the ability to speak. The TBI can result in a neurodegenerative disease with features of  dementia. It may affect amateur or professional boxers, wrestlers, and athletes in other sports who suffer concussions. Repetitive concussions are common as well to quarterbacks, wide receivers, hockey and soccer forwards, and especially the goalies. Occasionally, even a baseball catcher defending home plate will experience a concussion. The so-called glory and excitement of such sports can exact a horrible price from the players. What happens in the brain that results in these symptoms of disability? More on that tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

TBI - 2

Sometimes a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) results in death. You may recall the story of Natasha Richardson. She was taking a beginner's ski lesson not far from Montreal, Canada, so the story goes, and fell. Reportedly, she was not wearing a helmet. Initially she thought she was fine and didn't need medical attention. Unfortunately, she developed a headache some time later and was taken to the hospital. She died at the age of 45. An autopsy report listed the cause of death as an epidural hematoma due to blunt impact to the head. What can you do to minimize the risk of a TBI? Avoid falling, for one. Many falls are preventable. Wear a helmet when engaged in any activity that might result in a head injury. That includes skiing, bicycle riding, skate boarding, and so on. Use a seat belt when driving or riding in vehicles. Stay alert, rested, sober, and aware when driving (e.g., never text and minimize cell-phone use as the brain cannot multitask effectively). You cannot prevent everything but you can prevent some things. And the brain you save may be your own. What about TBIs that do not result in death but that do result in injury? More on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

TBI - 1

It has been known for some time that trauma to the brain can contribute to a plethora of problems. Some impact routine brain functions and some are life-threatening. And of the many types of injuries to the brain, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) remains high on the research  radar. The Brain Trauma Foundation (BTF) was founded in 1986 to develop research studies on TBI.  Since then, its mission has been expanded to include developing and implementing evidence-based guidelines for prehospital and in-hospital care of patients with TBI along with coordinating educational programs for healthcare professionals. They first published their Guidelines for the Management of Severe Traumatic Brain Injury in 1995 (revised in 2007). The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimated that if these guidelines were followed routinely, deaths from TBI might be cut in half along with significant savings for rehabilitation costs. Sometimes people fail to realize the potential damage from TBIs. More tomorrow.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Toxins and Dementia Risk

Exposure to toxins is one of the four “threats” that individuals need to avoid if they want to protect brain function. In terms of brain health, current wisdom is that if you don’t smoke, never start and if you do smoke, stop. This has been validated by a study sponsored by Kaiser Permanente and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. It found that smoking elevates the risk of both Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia. The study involved more than 20,000 ethnically diverse men and women. Results showed: a 157 percent heightened risk of Alzheimer's disease in people who had smoked more than two packs of cigarettes a day; and a 172 percent increased risk for vascular dementia, the second most common form of dementia. Researchers say the association between smoking and various forms of dementia is strong, but they do not know the exact reason. It has been shown before that people who smoke are more likely to have hypertension  high blood pressure) and cerebral vascular disease, as well as inflammation, and may contribute to the damage of brain blood vessels and cells.