Monday, September 8, 2008

SAD and Serotonin Studies

As summer ends and days get shorter, many people will suffer from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. The shortened hours of sunlight can affect mood and even cause depression in some people.

New research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada may have discovered the reason. The researchers at CAMH have discovered greater levels of serotonin transporter in the brain during winter than in the summer.

Serotonin is involved in regulating physical functions such as eating and energy balance, and emotional functions like mood and energy levels. The scientific team at CAMH believes that more serotonin is transported during the fall/winter than in the spring/summer.

According to Dr. Jeffrey Meyer this is “an important lead in understanding how season changes serotonin levels. This offers an explanation for why some healthy people experience low mood and energy in the winter, and why there is a regular reoccurrence of depressive episodes in fall and winter in some vulnerable individuals. The next steps will be to understand what causes this change and how to interfere with it.”

More at The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Data Chunks Easier to Remember

Many people say they aren't good at remembering long number sequences, but the very fact that we remember telephone numbers shows that humans can and do remember long strings of information, but there's a trick to it. We break up such information into smaller chunks.

Telephone numbers, for instance are broken up into sequences of 3 and 4 numbers. Not everyone knows their credit card numbers by heart, but these 16-digit strings are made easier to memorize by being set out in groups of four.

A study conducted with 14-month-old children demonstrated that this technique of remembering information in smaller chunks by showing the children toys, which were later hid in a box. During the study, two of the toys were placed in the box while the other two were hidden elsewhere. Researchers wanted to see how much longer children would search for the two missing toys.

They found that when the toys were in groups of two, such as two toy cats and two toy dogs, and one of each was removed, that children seemed to remember the fact that there were two of each and continued searching the box for the missing items.

Perhaps this type of research could change the way we teach information and affect our approach to information that we want to remember.

You can read more about the story at the Johns Hopkins website.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Deep Brain Stimulation Used to Treat Psychiatric Disorders

A procedure approved for the treatment of Parkinson's Disease may soon be used to treat certain psychiatric disorders.

Deep brain stimulation, or DBS has been used to quell tremors in Parkinson's patients. The procedure involves the neurosurgeon drilling one or two dime-size holes in the skull and inserting one or two electrodes about four inches into the brain. A connecting wire from the electrode runs under the skin to a battery implanted near the collarbone.

Dr. Douglas Anderson of Loyola University Health Systems has also used DBS to treat patients with debilitating headaches, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and body dysmorphic disorder.
DBS is also being currently studied for possible treatment of depression. Dr. Anderson reports successfully treating a patient with OCD and a patient with body dysmorphic disorder. Body dymorphic disorder is an excessive preoccupation with perceived flaws in the patient's body. These flaws may be minor or even imaginary.

For more information on DBS and the case studies mentioned, see the press release at Loyola University Health System.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Smelling the Coffee

Do you need that morning cup of coffee to stimulate your brain and get you going? Does the warm aroma of brewing coffee draw you from your bed? There may be a good reason for the old saying "wake up and smell the coffee". Scientists now report that simply inhaling the aroma of coffee alters activity of some genes in the brain.

Experiments with laboratory rats showed that when exposed to coffee aroma, changes in the activity and expression of genes and protiens helped reduce the stress of sleep derivation.

As odor deals with sense and emotion in the brain, it was reasoned that by examining molecular (mRNA expression and protein levels)responses in the brain of rat exposed to coffee bean aroma, we might get insight on the aroma-induced changes associated with brain function. Especially, as coffee is also considered a stress
reliever , we incorporated a stress condition via sleep
deprivation of 24 h in our experimental design with or without the presence of coffee bean aroma to see whether coffee can counteract the effects of stress at the level of gene/protein expression.

Results from the present study demonstrate the influence of coffee bean aroma on the rat’s brain functions at both genome and proteome levels, and the paper discusses these differentially expressed genes and proteins. This study is the first effort to elucidate the effects of coffee bean aroma on the sleep deprivation-induced stress of the rat brain.

We all know that cup of coffee gives us the jolt we need to overcome our natural inclinations to sleep when tired, and now there's proof that just smelling the coffee is enough to help us "wake up".

The study can be found here

Monday, June 2, 2008

Repressed Memories

According to the Stanford Research Institute, a person has between 90,000 and 150,000 thoughts per day. But a study at Stanford also indicates that we have some control over which thoughts we have and which we suppress.

The question of repressed memories has caused controversy, especially with reports of psychotherapists encouraging patients to "remember" events that, in reality, never happened. But research shows that the brain does have a biological mechanism for blocking out unwanted memories and that if these memories are blocked over and over for a long enough period of time, they cannot be recalled, not even at will.

A study using fMRI and memory exercises on words showed that when people were asked to purposely try not to remember one word of a pair of words they were shown, they did remember them less well than ones they were trying to remember, even when exposed to those words for a longer period of time.

The brain imaging scans showed that controlling unwanted memories was associated with increased activation of the left and right frontal cortex (the part of the brain used to repress memory), which in turn led to reduced activation of the hippocampus (the part of the brain used to remember experiences).

If we are actively choosing to forget certain memories, are they still lurking and ready to be called up under hypnosis or does the brain dispose of them as unwanted and unnecessary?

It does appear that repressed memories may be recalled years later when triggered by some event or sensory experience and events like this have been recorded. There have been many cases where those memories called up under hypnosis have not withstood the test of evidence.

The existence of repressed memories is still not fully accepted by mainstream psychology. There are experts in the field who believe that no evidence exists for the theory while others speculate that repression may be a method used by individuals to survive traumatic experiences. As research continues, perhaps science will find the key to all memory.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Being Multi-lingual Improves Mental Fitness

Knowing and speaking a second or third language may protect the brain against the cognitive decline associated with aging.

A study conducted by Dr. Gitit Kavé from the Herczeg Institute on Aging at Tel Aviv University concludes that seniors who are multi-lingual do better on cognitive functioning tests. Dr. Kavé is a clinical neuro-psychologist.

Previous research has indicated that education plays a large role in preserving mental fitness as we age, but it appears that speaking two or more languages has even a greater impact than education.

Why would language have such an impact? Speaking another language could be like exercise for the brain , strengthening it. It may create new links in the brain, increasing its plasticity.

But whether or not being multilingual was the main reason for the results, Dr. Kavé thinks that learning a new language is always a positive experience.

While the controversy continues as to whether or not parents should introduce their young children to a second language, Kavé thinks that learning a new language is only a good thing, even if it isn’t intended to stave off mental decline in old age.

“In my professional opinion, learning a new language can only do good things,” she believes. “Other languages are good for you at any age. They allow for a flexibility of thought and a channel for understanding another culture better, as well as your own,” says Kavé.

TAU Study Finds Connection Between Mental Fitness and Multi-Lingualism

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Synesthesia May Have Common Patterns

Grapheme-Color Synesthesia refers to the phenomenon in which some people experience colors when they see, hear or think of letters and numbers. Usually a synesthete will always see the same color as being related to a specific letter. But now, new research shows that there may be common letter-number combinations that are shared by a majority of those with synesthesia.

A study of 70 synesthetes, and a reanalysis of 19 more in previously published data finds that a common combination exists for more common letters and numbers. The letter A is usually red, for instance.

While science continues to study the ways in which the brain crosses these different senses to make the synesthesia experience, it is illuminating to see that there is consistency amongst synesthetes.

Perhaps it is not surprising then that A was The Scarlet Letter. Perhaps there is an underlying pattern in brain processes that produce these associations, yet that are "experienced" by the synesthete in actual senses involving color, sound and vision.

The new research done by psychologists Julia Simner, of the University of Edinburgh and Jamie Ward of the University of Sussex appears in the April issue of Psychological Science.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Brain Molecule May Be Key to Fibromyalgia Pain

Fibromyalgia is an often misunderstood and mis-diagnosed condition that can cause severe, debilitating pain and disability for sufferers. Until now, a definite cause of fibromyalgia has been a mystery, although it has been linked to trauma, stress, depression and co-morbidity with other diseases.

But now researchers at the University of Michigan Health System have discovered a link between fibromyalgia and a specific brain molecule. The molecule is glutamate, which is a neurotransmitter. Researchers found that when glutamate levels decreased, so did the severity of pain.

Previous studies have shown that fibromyalgia sufferers had increased activity in some brain regions, namely the insula. Neurons in these patients are more active in this part of the brain and researchers hypothesize that more activity among these neurons might be related to the level of glutamate in this region.

To gauge the linkage between pain and glutamate, the researchers used a non-invasive brain imaging techinique called proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (H-MRS). H-MRS was performed once before and once following a four-week course of acupuncture or “sham” acupuncture.

Researchers used either acupuncture or sham acupuncture to reduce pain symptoms. The sham procedure involved using a sharp device to prick the skin in order to mimic real acupuncture sensations.

Following the four weeks of treatment, both clinical and experimental pain reported were reduced significantly. More importantly the reduction in both pain outcomes was linked with reductions in glutamate levels in the insula: patients with greater reductions in pain showed greater reductions in glutamate. This suggests that glutamate may play a role in this disease and that it could potentially be used as a biomarker of disease severity.

University of Michigan - Pain in fibromyalgia is linked to changes in brain molecule

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Jazzy Brain

If you've ever taken music lessons and practiced for hours just to be able to play the notes exactly as written on the sheet music in front of you, then you might wonder how it is that jazz musicians seem to be able to make up notes on the spot and yet still be withing the musical framework of the song. For those of us with minor talents, the sheet music is essential to staying on target. But jazz musicians play with the music, teasing new sounds into old standards.

It's all in the brain say researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Using a special keyboard inside an fMRI machine, researchers studied the brains of study participants as they played and improvised. In different exercises, musicians from the Peabody Institute music conservatory were asked to play both memorized pieces and then to improvise. When the jazz musicians were improvising, researchers found a slow down in activity in a region of the brain that is central to planning and self-censorship. The musicians turned down their inhibitions and turned up their creativity.

The scientists found that a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a broad portion of the front of the brain that extends to the sides, showed a slowdown in activity during improvisation. This area has been linked to planned actions and self-censoring, such as carefully deciding what words you might say at a job interview. Shutting down this area could lead to lowered inhibitions, Limb suggests.

The researchers also saw increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which sits in the center of the brain’s frontal lobe. This area has been linked with self-expression and activities that convey individuality, such as telling a story about yourself.

Read more on this interesting study at the Johns Hopkins website

Friday, February 29, 2008

Warm Up the Brain with Exercise

Keeping the mind limber really does help it work more efficiently. This is being proved in a school in England whose students' test scores have improved, while other schools in the region have seen test scores steadily slipping.

Warblington School in Havant, Hampshire has encouraged students to engage in reading books for fun and to exercise the brain. Students are also quizzed via computer on the stories they read.

Before exams, students attend "mind gym" sessions to get the brain warmed up for the task ahead. If the exam will be on math, the students receive a math lesson to limber up the brain. The program was started one year ago and already has had impact on test scores.

It's no secret that keeping the brain active, through reading and brain exercises, can improve cognitive function. This is true whether you are a young school student or an older adult. To keep the brain nimble and quick, keep it learning.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Fewer Older Americans Suffering Cognitive Impairment

Older Americans are suffering less cognitive decline, according to a study by researcher at the University of Michigan Medical Center. The findings indicate that the rate of cognitive impairment went down from 12.2 percent to 8.7 percent in persons over 70 years of age. Cognitive impairment includes anything from memory problems to Alzheimer's.

What the study found was that seniors who were less likely to suffer cognitive impairment had on average more education, were financially better off and had received better care for cardiovascular conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Heart health is linked to brain health in many ways. Better cardiovascular health may be the most important factor in the study findings. The researchers also pointed out that learning experiences early in life build up a cognitive reserve.

Researchers advise seniors to stay active with both physical and mental exercise, keeping mentally engaged and physically active.

“More and more studies suggest that walking and other types of physical activity are important for preventing cognitive and memory decline,” says co-author Eric Larson, M.D., M.P.H., executive director of the Group Health Center for Health Studies in Seattle, where he has led many studies of the relationship between physical activity and brain health.

“The evidence seems to be showing that staying mentally engaged with the world in any fashion — reading, talking with friends, going to church, going to movies — is also likely to help reduce your risk down the road,” says Langa.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Social Interaction Increases Cognitive Function

There's bad news for hermits. Restricting your social interaction could make you dumb.

Research done at the University of Michigan suggests that social interaction increases cognitive functioning and aids intellectual performance. They compared social interaction to exercise for the brain.

“Social interaction,” the authors suggest, “helps to exercise people’s minds. People reap cognitive benefits from socializing,” They speculate that social interaction “exercises” cognitive processes that are measured on intellectual tasks. “It is possible,” the authors conclude, “that as people engage socially and mentally with others, they receive relatively immediate cognitive boosts.”

Research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by SAGE

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Deep Brain Stimulation Reverses Memory Loss

Scientists may have accidentally discovered the way to restore memory in Alzheimer's patients while trying to cure obesity. Doctors performing experimental surgery that involved implanting probes for deep brain stimulation failed to cure the man's appetite but instead, stimulation of his brain invoked decades-old memories in vivid detail.

Deep-Brain Stimulation has been used successfully in Parkinson's patients and now the focus is turning to using it as a way to restore memory and cognitive function in those suffering from memory loss. Following the surgery, the patient whose operation was supposed to promote weight loss, was given memory tests, and the results showed that his performance improved dramatically with the application of current to the brain.

So far, the results have been on one person and whether the technique will work with Alzheimer's patients is unknown. But scientists are hopeful that they will one day be able to unlock the brains and memories of those suffering from this devastating disease.

Scientists Discover Way to Reverse Loss of Memory

Monday, January 21, 2008

Cars that Read Your Mind in 5 Years

A new "smart dashboard" that reduces a driver's distractions and improves reaction times by monitoring brain activity is being developed by the Technical University of Berlin and may be available in just five years.

As reported on in the New Scientist, the smart dash can speed up reaction times enough to allow for reduced breaking distances, thereby possibly averting accidents, injuries and deaths.

One of the problems requiring further development of the acr/brain interface is the apparatus for receiving the brain signals, since the electrodes on the head require a sticky conductive gel and even dry must be placed all over the head.

Read more in the New Scientist