What can we learn from Robin Williams’ death?

robin

I was saddened this week to read of the tragic death of Robin Williams.  The 63-year-old talented actor and performer struggled with substance abuse since the 1980s. He previously admitted to cocaine and alcohol addiction and entered rehab in 2006 for alcoholism after 20 years of sobriety and had again voluntarily checked himself into rehab in June.

Anxiety and depression – a potentially lethal mix

Over the past two decades I have visited high schools and colleges to talk on mental health and how stress can affect the brain and it still amazes me how little the general public understand just how damaging the effects of stress are on the brain can be and how important it is to manage stress in a positive way. While we cannot know Robin’s motivation to take his own life we know that he complained of anxiety and depression and was also suffering the early effects of Parkinson’s disease in the weeks preceding his tragic death.

The amygdala – the brain’s house alarm

Anxiety is brain state associated with the over-activation of two tiny brain regions – no bigger than a thumb nail – called the amygdala (Latin; the almond). These two regions located deep in the brain behind the nose – one on the left side and one on the right side – contain nerves that help to convert alarm into action. Once activated, the amygdala triggers the brain into a state of high alert usually associated with imminent danger.  Under normal conditions the amygdala is there to save your life for instance by avoiding oncoming traffic when crossing a busy road.  However, you only have to endure one sleepless night as a result of the noise from a neighbour’s house/car alarm to understand the exhausting effect of an overactive amygdala. It is no coincidence then that anxiety which may also include unpredictable panic attacks can lead to the emotional exhaustion found in depression which is a profound lowering of the mood and an inability to appreciate anything positive.

Anxiety is a prelude to depression

If anxiety is not nipped in the bud then emotional burnout sets-in and a spiral of depression starts to take hold.  Depression is not to be confused with sadness which is a natural response to the normal ups and downs of life. It is through sadness that we learn and become wise. In contrast, depression is suffocating and blocks us off from the world by making us focus only on the negative aspects of everyday life including for example a loss of self-worth. This phenomenon is also known as situational bias. This type of negative thinking backed-up by a low mood can lead to a dangerous fatalism where the sufferer feels that life is not worth living. In Robin’s case his depression was probably not helped by a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease – for which it is unclear if he was receiving medication.

What is Parkinson’s disease?

Over 4 million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s disease – a so-called hypokinetic disorder (Greek; hypo = lack of; kinetic = movement). Parkinson’s disease can be genetic but it can also be triggered by prolonged exposure to some drugs. It is a progressive disease - the symptoms start out small and get progressively worse but it is rarely fatal. With Parkinson’s disease one minute you are working away in the garden and the next you are literally stuck to the spot – totally unable to move. In these situations daily life can become a challenge that can be difficult to endure.

The core defect

The ‘core defect’ in Parkinson’s disease is a loss of a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine acts like hydraulic oil which lubricates those nerve networks involved in executing a movement. In Parkinson’s disease he supply of dopamine dries-up and like a car out of oil the engine seizes-up and movement grinds to a halt.

Trapped and disconnected

We need dopamine to survive. Dopamine allows us to talk, sing, socialize, improvise and take risks. When dopamine flows we don’t see things as being limited by circumstance. We have boundless energy and literally anything is possible! One only needed to watch Robin Williams perform at the height of his career to see dopamine in action as his brain effortlessly converted his thoughts and moods into the mesmerizing performances that made him so loved by a generation. Without dopamine we feel trapped and disconnected.  It is not surprising therefore that mood can become low and anxiety and depression are often associated with this illness.

What can we learn from Robin’s death?

Since Robin’s death some media have reported that it is a pity that something like this has to overshadow what he achieved during his life and  that a tragedy like this in not of any benefit to anyone.

While I agree with this to an extent, I do think that Robin’s death might be of some benefit if it opens up a debate on how we as a society deal with stress. We have heard that Robin was under a great deal of stress in the days and weeks leading up to his death.  In this he is not alone. As the world economy continues on its downward slide, and unemployment and financial worries beset us, are we going to turn more and more to quick fixes to handle our dis-stress?

Probably the most important lesson to be taken from Robin’s death is the realization that the stresses of life and how we manage them IS the difference between life and death. I look forward to developing this theme in greater detail including drug-free tips on how the avoid worry and stress in future posts, but in the meantime, my deepest sympathy go to Robin’s loved ones at this difficult time.

Further Reading

Emotions are habits so pick a good one

World Mental Health Day

Why Parkinson’s Disease Has Robbed Linda Ronstadt Of Her Voice

 

 


Weekly Neuroscience Update

Scientists used gene chips to help discover new genes that may be involved with Parkinson’s disease. Credit National Human Genome Research Institute.

cientists used gene chips to help discover new genes that may be involved with Parkinson’s disease. Credit National Human Genome Research Institute.

Using data from over 18,000 patients, scientists have identified more than two dozen genetic risk factors involved in Parkinson’s disease, including six that had not been previously reported.

Latest research says depression is a risk factor for dementia.

The happiness of over 18,000 people worldwide has been predicted by a mathematical equation, with results showing that moment-to-moment happiness reflects not just how well things are going, but whether things are going better than expected. And in another study, research suggests the right kind of happiness can change the code that defines our very being: our genes.

New research has mapped out the complex set of genes which interact with the environment to crystalise  reading and math abilities.

Children who have been abused or neglected early in life are at risk for developing both emotional and physical health problems. In a new study, scientists have found that maltreatment affects the way genes are activated, which has implications for children’s long-term development.

Scientists have discovered which brain networks are responsible when frustration leads to rage.

Adolescents who behave aggressively are more likely to drink alcohol and in larger quantities than their peers, according to a recent study completed in Finland. Depression and anxiety, on the other hand, were not linked to increased alcohol use. The study investigated the association between psychosocial problems and alcohol use among 4074 Finnish 13- to 18-year-old adolescents. The results were published in Journal of Adolescence.

New findings suggests that mild concussion may cause cognitive and memory problems.

Finally this week research conducted at the University of Adelaide, suggests that at least one part of the human brain may be able to process information the same way in older age as it does in the prime of life.

 


Weekly Neuroscience Update

Granule cells connect with other cells via long projections (dendrites). The actual junctions (synapses) are located on thorn-like protuberances called “spines”. Spines are shown in green in the computer reconstruction Credit DZNE/Michaela Müller.

Granule cells connect with other cells via long projections (dendrites). The actual junctions (synapses) are located on thorn-like protuberances called “spines”. Spines are shown in green in the computer reconstruction Credit DZNE/Michaela Müller.

New findings on the link between nerve cells at the interface to the hippocampus may have an influence on learning and memory.

People choosing between two or more equally positive outcomes experience paradoxical feelings of pleasure and anxiety, feelings associated with activity in different regions of the brain, according to research at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute at Princeton University.

Latest findings on how stress hormones promote the brain’s building of negative memories.

Researchers have studied the changes in the brain that are associated with impulsiveness, a personality trait that causes difficulties in inhibiting a response in the face of a stimulus and leads to unplanned actions without considering the negative consequences. These patterns can serve as an indicator for predicting the risk of behavioural problems.

People taking dopamine for Parkinson’s disease sometimes begin to generate a lot of artwork. New research differentiates their expressiveness from obsessive or impulsive tendencies.

Researchers have uncovered more than 100 genetic markers linked to developing schizophrenia.

A type of immune cell widely believed to exacerbate chronic adult brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis (MS), can actually protect the brain from traumatic brain injury (TBI) and may slow the progression of neurodegenerative diseases, according to research published in the online journal Nature Communications.


Virtual Finger

In this video, The Allen Institute for Brain Science’s Hanchuan Peng, Ph.D., gives an overview of Virtual Finger, a revolutionary new way to digitally navigate three-dimensional images. The new technology allows scientists to move through digital images of small structures like neurons and synapses using the flat surface of their computer screens.

 


Weekly Neuroscience Update

Glioma cells tend to congregate at blood vessel junctions, almost as if camping alongside a stream where it joins a river. The ready supply of nutrients would allow the cell to grow into a larger tumor mass. Credit University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Glioma cells tend to congregate at blood vessel junctions, almost as if camping alongside a stream where it joins a river. The ready supply of nutrients would allow the cell to grow into a larger tumor mass. Credit University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Researchers have shed new light on how cells called gliomas migrate in the brain and cause devastating tumors. The findings, published in Nature Communications, show that gliomas — malignant glial cells — disrupt normal neural connections and hijack control of blood vessels.

New details on the NMDA receptor could aid development of drugs for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, other neurological disorders.

In a new study, scientists took a molecular-level journey into microtubules, the hollow cylinders inside brain cells that act as skeletons and internal highways. They watched how a protein called tubulin acetyltransferase (TAT) labels the inside of microtubules. The results, published in Cell, answer long-standing questions about how TAT tagging works and offer clues as to why it is important for brain health.

Patients with persistent ringing in the ears – a condition known as tinnitus – process emotions differently in the brain from those with normal hearing, researchers report in the journal Brain Research.

Pornography triggers brain activity in people with compulsive sexual behaviour – known commonly as sex addiction – similar to that triggered by drugs in the brains of drug addicts, according to a University of Cambridge study published in the journal PLOS ONE. However, the researchers caution that this does not necessarily mean that pornography itself is addictive.

Around half of the genes that influence how well a child can read also play a role in their mathematics ability, say scientists from UCL, the University of Oxford and King’s College London who led a study into the genetic basis of cognitive traits.

Psychologists at Stony Brook University, NY, suggest that about 20% of the population are genetically predisposed to be more aware and empathic. Now, in a new study, they explore which regions of the brain are implicated in this. They publish their findings in the journal Brain and Behavior.

Learning a second language may help improve brain function regardless of when you start, according to a new study.

 


Your Brain On Social Media #SMDay

social media day

To mark the fifth global Social Media Day today, here are my thoughts on predicting the future of social media.

Internet companies are looking for ways to get inside our heads – to tinker with the very thing that makes us human – our brain.  As Facebook gets ready to take-on new challengers after its recent launch on the stock market, is it possible that the battle for future dominance on the Internet will be won or lost inside our heads?  Knowledge about human behaviour, emotion and sensory stimulation is starting to flow through to the actual strategies of the leading Internet competitors.

Neuroscience – front and centre

Neuroscience – the scientific study of the nervous system – once at the periphery of the way we thought about the Internet, is suddenly in the spotlight. Just by understanding how the human brain works – Internet companies can get more users.

It’s all in your head

The Internet takes advantage of the two most important features within the human brain – that social behaviour elicits pleasure and that vision triggers memories and emotions deep within our unconscious minds – and quite simply, the key to the future success of the Internet and future billion-dollar valuations will depend on how the Internet can get that neuroscience right.

The reward pathway

The first feature is that social activity triggers a nerve pathway deep in our subconscious – the mesolimbic dopamine pathway – also called the reward pathway, releasing a chemical called dopamine which bathes the brain’s pleasure centres – similar to other activities with intrinsic value such as food, sex and getting money. People like talking about themselves on social media because it has intrinsic value by generating a warm emotion of being part of something important. In other words, we like sharing because it is enjoyable for its own sake as a social activity. In this way sharing is deeply sensory – we humans literally ‘get high’ on social activity.

reward_pathway_jpeg

To the left is a view of the human brain cut down the middle. The reward pathway – shown in red above – is activated by a rewarding stimulus. The major structures in the reward pathway are highlighted: the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex. The VTA sends information along its connections to both the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex. The neurons of the VTA contain the neurotransmitter dopamine which is released in the nucleus accumbens and in the prefrontal cortex. The pathway shown here is not the only pathway activated by rewards, other structures are involved too, but only this part of the pathway is shown for simplicity. (Adapted from the American Society for Neuroscience).

Humans – the ultimate party animals

Even 80 year olds look forward to their weekly bingo or bridge game or to just simply meet up with family/friends and having a chat.  From cooking a favourite meal to getting together with friends, it’s the smells and the stories and the smiles that make human connections so essential to psychological wellbeing. This is why we humans are the most social of the apes – no question about it – we love to party. No surprise then about the popularity of the Internet as it has taken our ability to socialise to a new level. Every comment, post, status update and tweet is a tiny jolt that triggers the pleasure centres of our brains.  On top of that – time and location are no longer impediments to social contact with like-minded friends.

Seeing is believing

The second feature is that over 70% of the human brain is dedicated to vision which means that our brains think in terms of visual images.

In fact, the visual system is the first to mature in the human brain so that by the age of five, children are able to compete on visual games with their grandparents …and win! This explains why the newer social networks like Instagram and Pinterest that use images have the potential to become even more popular for Internet users that the text-based Facebook and Twitter. Viewed from this perspective, Mark Zuckerberg’s recent billion-dollar bid for Instagram suddenly makes a lot of sense. It’s not just that Instagram is a hugely popular mobile network with millions of users; it’s that the company understands that retro filters and beautiful light effects actually trigger visual associations and associated memories deep within our unconscious minds.

The future of the Internet is a neurofuture

Future Internet innovations is not in a mobile or social experience that’s just smaller but something more intimate, and more expressive – one which embraces a sensor-rich Smartphone including touchable screen and high-density display. The future will be wrapped in an envelope of sensation – vision, touch, taste, smell and sound – where companies will compete with each other to rush out new innovations that flood our pleasure centres with dopamine. Narrowing the gap between our physical and digital worlds – making our digital worlds as visual, tactile and emotional as the real world – such as the world’s first cyber-hug – is just around the corner. Today’s new Android and iPhone mobile app “sense and soul” that takes the orderly, linear and rational layout of Google+ and transforms it into something beautifully nonlinear,  unstructured and stimulating might be an important step in this direction.

 


Weekly Neuroscience Update

MIT neuroscientists found that brain waves originating from the striatum (red) and from the prefrontal cortex (blue) become synchronized when an animal learns to categorize different patterns of dots.  Illustration: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT

MIT neuroscientists found that brain waves originating from the striatum (red) and from the prefrontal cortex (blue) become synchronized when an animal learns to categorize different patterns of dots.
Illustration: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT

The human mind can rapidly absorb and analyze new information as it flits from thought to thought. These quickly changing brain states may be encoded by synchronization of brain waves across different brain regions, according to a new study from MIT neuroscientists.

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examines what happens to the brain when it recovers from the effects of anesthetic.

A new study finds that meditation strongly stimulates parts of the brain that help with memory and emotion processing, which in turn lowers stress. A team of researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the University of Oslo, and the University of Sydney found that “nondirective” meditation, in which someone achieves a relaxed focus of attention by repeating a mantra or sound and lets his or her mind wander, is the most effective kind of meditation.

New research touts the ability of PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans to identify patients in a minimally conscious state (MCS) far more accurately than other imaging technologies.


How Meditation Reshapes Our Brain

Neuroscientist Sara Lazar’s talk reveals how meditation can actually change key regions of our brain, improving our memory and making us more empathetic, compassionate and resilient under stress.


Walking Again At The World Cup

Thanks to an international collaboration between universities such as Colorado State University, the Technical University of Munich and the Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal in Brazil, a paralyzed teen is set to open next month’s World Cup event by kicking a football while wearing a motorized exoskeleton controlled by his or her brain. The demonstration, known as the Walk Again project, will take place during the opening ceremony June 12 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Colorado State University  recently published a video of its portion of the Walk Again Project, describing just how the mind-control helmet was 3D-printed layer-by-layer in order to fit the wearer’s head and connect the electrodes. This video is a fascinating glimpse into how advances in robotics and 3D printing can improve people’s lives.

 

 


Weekly Neuroscience Update

human-brain-120329

MRIs work by aligning the magnetic spin of the hydrogen molecules in the body. Credit: Image courtesy of MGH-UCLA Human Connectome Project.

Brain scans are now starting to peer down to the molecular level, revealing what brain cells are telling one another, researchers say.

A new study has provided insight into the behavioral damage caused by repeated blows to the head. The research provides a foundation for scientists to better understand and potentially develop new ways to detect and prevent the repetitive sports injuries that can lead to the condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Sufferers of a common sleep-breathing disorder have diminished activity among neurons responsible for keeping heart rate low, reveals a new study published in The Journal of Physiology. The research discovered that in obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), neurons in the brainstem that control heart rate experience a blunting of their activity. The reduction of neuronal activity likely contributes to the increased heart rate,blood pressure and risk of adverse cardiovascular events that occur in patients with OSA.

A variant of the gene KLOTHO is known for its anti-aging effects in people fortunate enough to carry a copy. Now researchers have found that it also has benefits when it comes to brain function.

Humans who lack the corpus callosum, a bundle of 200 million fibers that connect the left and right hemispheres of the brain, have long fascinated physicians, neuroscientists and other curious minds. Now, a group of researchers puts an end to the Sperry’s paradox, which describes major differences between individuals born with reduced or absent brain connections and those who acquire this condition later in life.

A study has shown that a long-overlooked form of neuron-to-neuron communication called miniature neurotransmission plays an essential role in the development of synapses, the regions where nerve impulses are transmitted and received.

The way that your heart rate increases in response to alertness in the brain has been recently discovered by researchers. Specifically, this study looked at the interactions between neurons that fire upon increased attention and anxiety and neurons that control heart rate to discover the “why,” “how,” and “where to next” behind this phenomenon. The results may have important implications for how certain conditions are treated in the future, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic anxiety, or even stress.

A growing body of evidence suggests nonhuman animals can group living and inanimate things based on less than obvious shared traits, raising questions about how creatures accomplish this task.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool found musical training can increase blood flow in the left hemisphere of the brain, suggesting the area of the brain responsible for music and language share common pathways.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 766 other followers