The Day I Met Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks died yesterday, Sunday, August 30th.

He was eighty two years old. Sacks was the author of several books about unusual medical conditions, including Awakenings (1973) which was based on his work with patients he came across in 1966 while working as a consulting neurologist in a chronic care public hospital in the Bronx, New York.

Forgotten

Many of these patients had already spent decades in strange, frozen states, like human statues and were forgotten. Sacks recognised them as survivors of the encephalitis epidemic that had swept the world from 1916 to 1927, and treated them with a then-experimental drug called L-dopa that woke them up after years in a catatonic (sleep-like) state. These patients then became the subjects of Awakenings – a deeply moving commentary on the human condition.

Santa Claus

I was fortunate to meet Oliver Sacks 25 years ago in early 1990 while attending a week-long workshop on brain research at Rockefeller University in Manhattan when one morning Sacks suddenly turned-up at the meeting. A big, tall, burly, bear of a man with a bushy white beard, he was the closest thing I’d ever seen to Santa Claus.

Awakenings – the movie

He looked tired so at the coffee break I asked him if he was busy writing another book. He told me that he had just come directly from the set of a movie (later called Awakenings) which was filming at the then still functioning Kingsboro Psychiatric Centre across the east river in Brooklyn and that a local Manhattan actor called ‘Bobby’ de Niro was playing the part of a patient called Leonard – a key character in the book and the movie.

Academy awards

Having already read and enjoyed the book I was intrigued to hear Sacks tell me that it was his first experience of being on a movie set and he was concerned, exhausted even observing the intensity with which De Niro was preparing for this role, so-much-so that when he (Sacks) once invited De Niro to join him for lunch during a brief break in filming, De Niro continued to remain in-character making any dinner conversation between the two impossible. Sacks was no doubt relieved to learn later that de Niro received an Oscar for one of his best performances and the film received two more Oscars for best picture and best screenplay.

Keep learning and don’t conform

Sacks led a rich and varied life which epitomised the principle; keep learning and don’t conform. In this regard, he was interested in patients with unusual and unexplained medical conditions and his writings brought an enlightened understanding to their suffering. His books provide consolation to the outcast, the underdog and the misunderstood and they will be cherished for many years to come. I look forward to developing this principle in greater detail in future posts, but in the meantime, my deepest sympathy goes to Oliver’s loved ones at this difficult time.


Weekly Neuroscience Update

Using a technique dubbed “brainbow,” the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute scientists tagged synaptic terminals with proteins that fluoresce different colors. The researchers thought one color, representing the single source of the many terminals, would dominate in the clusters. Instead, several different colors appeared together, intertwined but distinct. Credit: Virginia Tech.

Using a technique dubbed “brainbow,” the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute scientists tagged synaptic terminals with proteins that fluoresce different colors. The researchers thought one color, representing the single source of the many terminals, would dominate in the clusters. Instead, several different colors appeared together, intertwined but distinct. Image Credit: Virginia Tech.

Neuroscientists know that some connections in the brain are pruned through neural development. Function gives rise to structure, according to the textbooks. But scientists have discovered that the textbooks might be wrong. Their results were published this week in Cell Reports.

In 2011, MIT neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe and colleagues reported that in blind adults, brain regions normally dedicated to vision processing instead participate in language tasks such as speech and comprehension. Now, in a study of blind children, Saxe’s lab has found that this transformation occurs very early in life, before the age of 4. The study, appearing in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that the brains of young children are highly plastic, meaning that regions usually specialized for one task can adapt to new and very different roles. The findings also help to define the extent to which this type of remodeling is possible.

New research suggests individuals with autistic traits may have more advanced creativity skills than those without such traits.

Physically fit people tend to have larger brain volumes and more intact white matter than their less-fit peers. Now a new study reveals that older adults who regularly engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity have more variable brain activity at rest than those who don’t. This variability is associated with better cognitive performance, researchers say.

Young adults diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in adolescence show differences in brain structure and perform poorly in memory tests compared to their peers, according to new research from the University of Cambridge, UK, and the University of Oulu, Finland.

People who will develop dementia may begin to lose awareness of their memory problems two to three years before the actual onset of the disease, according to a new study published in the online issue of Neurology. The study also found that several dementia-related brain changes, or pathologies, are associated with the decline in memory awareness.

People with Alzheimer’s disease have fat deposits in the brain. For the first time researchers have discovered accumulations of fat droplets in the brain of patients who died from the disease and have identified the nature of the fat.

Finally this week, a computer analyzing speech has correctly identified five individuals who would later experience a psychotic episode against 29 who would not among a group of high-risk patients in a proof-of-principle study. The findings raise the prospect of a clinical tool to aid the diagnosis and prognosis of severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia.

 

 


Does Exercise Enhance Creativity?


In this short video, neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki talks about how exercise can stimulate creativity.


Weekly Neuroscience Update

The link between vision problems and schizophrenia is well established, with as many as 62 percent of adult patients with schizophrenia experience visual distortions involving form, motion, or color. Image is for illustrative purposes only. Credit: University of Bristol.

The link between vision problems and schizophrenia is well established, with as many as 62 percent of adult patients with schizophrenia experience visual distortions involving form, motion, or color. Image is for illustrative purposes only. Credit: University of Bristol.

New research has identified the mechanisms that trigger disruption in the brain’s communication channels linked to symptoms in psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia. The study, published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, could have important implications for treating symptoms of brain disorders.

Genetic analysis of human patients has shown that mutations in genes involved in synaptic communication can drive neuropsychiatric and neurological diseases such as autism spectrum disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers have discovered a way to predict human emotions based on brain activity.

Working 55 hours or more per week is linked to a 33% greater risk of stroke compared with working a standard 35 to 40 hour week, according to the largest study in this field so far,  published in The Lancet.

The permanence of memories has long thought to be mediated solely by the production of new proteins. However, new research has shown that the electrical activity of the brain may be a more primary factor in memory solidification.

The hippocampus in the brain’s temporal lobe is responsible for more than just long-term memory. Researchers have for the first time demonstrated that it is also involved in quick and successful conflict resolution

A brief period of postnatal visual deprivation, when early in life, drives a rewiring of the brain areas involved in visual processing, even if the visual restoration is completed well before the baby reaches one year of age, researchers revealed in Current Biology.

New research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry suggests that serious disorders of mood such as bipolar disorder may be the price that human beings have had to pay for more adaptive traits such as intelligence, creativity and verbal proficiency.

Finally this week, people with psychopathic characteristics are less likely to be affected by “contagious yawning” than those who are empathetic, according to a Baylor University psychology study.


How The Brain Works


Weekly Neuroscience Update

math-model-memory

Human memory is the result of different mental processes, such as learning, remembering and forgetting. However, these distinct processes cannot be observed directly. Researchers have now succeeded at describing them using computational models. The scientists were thus for the first time able to identify gene sets responsible for steering specific memory processes. Their results have been published in the current issue of the journal PNAS.

A new study has demonstrated how stress can influence regions of the brain involved with self-control.

A groundbreaking new study has found for the first time that emotions are not only the product of the processing of information by the brain, but that they also directly influence processes of learning and memory in the brain.

A new study suggests that your fat tissue can send mixed signals to your brain when stress strikes.

The brains of people with epilepsy appear to react to music differently from the brains of those who do not have the disorder, a finding that could lead to new therapies to prevent seizures, according to research presented at the American Psychological Association’s 123rd Annual Convention.

Researchers have discovered a way to predict human emotions based on brain activity.

Recent research published in the journal Microsystems & Nanoengineering could eventually change the way people living with prosthetics and spinal cord injury lead their lives.

A growing body of research suggests a link between kidney impairment and brain disorders.

A new study may have unlocked understanding of a mysterious part of the brain — with implications for neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s. The results, published in Translational Vision Science & Technology (TVST), open up new areas of research in the pursuit of neuroprotective therapies.

Children who suffer an injury to the brain — even a minor one — are more likely to experience attention issues.

New research has identified a novel learning and memory brain network that processes incoming information based on whether it’s something we’ve experienced previously or is deemed to be altogether new and unknown, helping us recognize, for instance, whether the face before us is that of a familiar friend or a complete stranger.

Finally, this week, A new study sheds light on what motivates people to trust. 

 


15 ways to stave off dementia

dementia

Evidence suggests that if key risk factors for dementia – such as poor nutrition, lack of exercise and unhealthy lifestyles – were addressed, fewer people would have it. In today’s post I suggest fifteen ways you may be able to stave off dementia.

1 Wear a helmet
Head injury has been linked to early onset of Alzheimer’s later in life.  Some boxers, as well as people who otherwise suffer a head injury, can have a higher risk of contracting Alzheimer’s disease, which constitutes about 70pc of dementia cases. It’s therefore wise to make a point of wearing a helmet if you play sports which can result in a head injury. For the same reason, it’s also a very good idea to always wear your seat-belt in the car.

2 Eat Fish
A diet rich in fish is a diet low in cholesterol. When the medical profession started to treat high cholesterol with cholesterol-lowering medication called statins, they discovered they could also delay the onset of dementia for about seven years. Statins may be helpful to people who show signs of early-onset dementia.

3 Use It or Lose It

Keep your brain active. It’s a case of use it or lose it. The more you challenge the brain, as you do in education, the fitter and healthier it becomes, which means it can withstand attack in older age from problems such as stress, depression or trauma. The more educated you are and the more effective you’ve been in using your brain during your life, the stronger its ability to resist attack. Interestingly, people who are by nature curious tend, on average, to develop Alzheimer’s much later in life than people who are not.

4 Eat less sugar

Scientists now believe there is an association between hypoglycaemia and dementia.Most people with type two diabetes develop the diabetes because they eat so much sugary food and take so little exercise that the body cannot handle the sugar. New research has shown that diabetes, and the rebound hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) it causes, may exacerbate the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The brain uses glucose (sugar) as a primary source of energy, and cognitive function becomes impaired when blood glucose drops to low levels. Basically, diabetes impairs the production and regulation of insulin which helps blood cells take up glucose. This means that for diabetics, getting a regular supply of glucose to the brain is more difficult. Scientists now believe that when the brain is starved of energy, neurological problems like dementia and Alzheimer’s are more likely to develop.

5 Lose weight

Scientists now believe there is a link between midlife obesity and a higher risk of developing dementia. Once the body is extremely overweight or obese, t he fat becomes metabolically or chemically unstable and can become inflamed. That inflammation may then spread around the body – including to the brain. Inflammation in the brain is believed to be linked to dementia.

6 Don’t smoke

Smoking obstructs the lungs, and can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. This means the lungs are not able to get as much oxygen as they need and you end up damaging the lungs, and the lung tissue. Insufficient oxygen supplies to the brain lowers the brain’s energy levels, thereby impairing its ability to protect itself. Meanwhile, the nicotine damages blood vessels everywhere in the body, including in the brain. By damaging the blood vessels, nicotine can help cause high blood pressure and damage the nerves in the brain.

7 Treat your depression

It’s now believed that depression can be a factor in the onset of dementia. There is evidence now that depression may be a brain inflammation in the frontal part of the brain – while Alzheimer’s is an inflammation in the hippocampus. If you’re suffering from depression, get it treated,  because inflammation weakens the ability of the brain to fight infection. Depression is also about withdrawal from society so being depressed means you’re less open to doing things and that means you aren’t challenging your brain.

8 Be physically active

If you’re physically inactive, you’re not introducing oxygen to the body – and the brain needs huge amounts of oxygen because it’s so active, even during the night. The brain can use more oxygen in some phases of sleep than when we’re awake during the day.  Depriving the brain of oxygen prevents it from learning, i.e. making new connections and repairing itself – let alone getting on with the normal processes of growth and development.

9 Watch Your Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is a major cause of stroke, which deprives the brain of life-giving oxygen. You can end up with dementia through a series of mini-strokes. These can gradually lead to a change in the person’s character, which eventually, without appropriate treatment, may develop into full-blown dementia. So avoid a lifestyle which can contribute to high blood pressure – reduce your stress levels, make sure you get sufficient, good quality sleep and avoid drugs linked to high blood pressure such as nicotine.

10 Get that ingrown toenail treated!

Seriously – never allow an infection in the body to persist. If you do, it may spread and, over a series of decades, can result in an inflammation which spreads to the brain and may result in dementia. When we develop an infection, the body responds with a series of chemicals which are supposed to fight it. However, if the infection persists, and goes untreated, these ‘warrior’ chemicals can spread throughout the body. They can eventually become indiscriminate in what they fight, so instead of fighting infection, they start to fight the body including the brain.

11 Nutrition

Make sure your diet includes lots of vegetables, particularly green leafy ones, and fruit, herbs like rosemary and sage and plenty of fish oil. Vegetables and fruit are packed with health-giving antioxidants which stop inflammation. Antioxidants are like a fire-blanket on inflammation. Eat the rosemary and sage which are cognitively enhancing because they contain chemicals which replace the main neurotransmitter damaged in dementia – acetycholine – which is involved in high-level thought. Make sure your diet also includes good-quality fish oil – try having sardines on toast once a week, for example.  Fish oil is used by the body to make the chemicals to fight inflammation. And drink coffee.  People who drink it are less predisposed to Alzheimer’s. It’s a psychological stimulant and a cognitive-enhancing drug.

12 Watch TG4!

Brush up on your Irish – there’s evidence to show that having a second language can help protect you from the onset of dementia. It has been discovered that learning a second language exercises the brain so much that it strengthens it and makes it more resistant to fighting the injuries and infection which often result in dementia. A Swiss study carried out in the last few years has showed that bilingualism and multilingualism seems to offer protection again the onset of dementia.”

13 Buy a Smartphone and play video games

Get a smartphone because it’s good for your brain to work out how to use it properly, especially if you’re older.  Play video games with your grandchildren – it will help to keep you mentally on your toes; while playing bridge either with your friends or online is a great way to wake up the brain. Bridge is a game of memory and strategy. It’s very challenging for the brain and is also a highly sociable activity.

14 Try some brain-teasers

Use your non-preferred hand once in a while for activities such as brushing your teeth or hair. This challenges your brain because you are carrying out an unfamiliar activity. Try wearing your wristwatch upside down – this also forces your brain to do some work. It requires the hippocampus (the area of the brain which is the most vulnerable to dementia) to do a mental rotation in order to work out the correct time from the dial.  And try learning to juggle – this is a great exercise in hand-eye coordination because it involves both physical activity and mental concentration. Go buy three oranges now and get on with it. It’s part of a brain-building process which helps your brain fight the injury and infection that may lead to dementia.

15 Get creative! Doodle

Instead of just looking at art or just listening to music, make your own.  Write songs, paint a picture, learn to play an instrument, sing or dance. First of all, it’s physically active, and secondly you’re thinking about what you are doing. Your brain is planning and working instead of simply receiving information. Make a point of regularly reading challenging material and do 30-minute word searches on Google, picking a word, for example ‘starling’, and finding out everything there is to know about these birds.  It’s also good to doodle. Doodling is a healthy mental exercise because it is a creative act. It’s a sign that what you’re currently doing is not sufficiently challenging. Doodling is positive because it’s a creative and focused activity.

Adapted from The Irish Independent


Take A Trip Inside Your Brain

; This is an anatomically-realistic 3D brain visualization depicting real-time source-localized activity (power and “effective” connectivity) from EEG (electroencephalographic) signals. Each color represents source power and connectivity in a different frequency band (theta, alpha, beta, gamma) and the golden lines are white matter anatomical fiber tracts. Estimated information transfer between brain regions is visualized as pulses of light flowing along the fiber tracts connecting the regions.


Weekly Neuroscience Update

The stage when a brain is actively engaged in a new experience can be described as “online” activity. On the flip side of this neurological process, “offline” activity, or neural replay, is the process by which the brain rehearses what has been learned in order to strengthen the most important memories. The image is for illustrative purposes only. Image credit: NIH.

The stage when a brain is actively engaged in a new experience can be described as “online” activity. On the flip side of this neurological process, “offline” activity, or neural replay, is the process by which the brain rehearses what has been learned in order to strengthen the most important memories. The image is for illustrative purposes only. Image credit: NIH.

The permanence of memories has long thought to be mediated solely by the production of new proteins. However, new research has shown that the electrical activity of the brain may be a more primary factor in memory solidification.

Sleeping not only protects memories from being forgotten, it also makes them easier to access, according to new research. The findings suggest  that after sleep we are more likely to recall facts which we could not remember while still awake.

The tendency of more intelligent people to live longer has been shown, for the first time, to be mainly down to their genes by new research published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

Dogs have a specialized region in their brains for processing faces, a new study finds.

The first ever genetic analysis of people with extremely high intelligence has revealed small but important genetic differences between some of the brightest people in the United States and the general population.

A new study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology, found a strong association between insulin resistance and memory function decline, increasing the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Insulin resistance is common in people who are obese, pre-diabetic or have Type 2 diabetes.

New brain research has mapped a key trouble spot likely to contribute to intellectual disability in Down syndrome.

Fundamental differences between how the brain forms during adolescence have been discovered in children with schizophrenia and their siblings, a new study shows. The study opens up new avenues for researchers to explore when developing treatment for the illness, which can be hugely debilitating for children.


Preventing addiction relapse by erasing drug-associated memories

Originally posted on Lunatic Laboratories:

Team advances therapy preventing addiction relapse by erasing drug-associated memories

Recovering addicts often grapple with the ghosts of their addiction–memories that tempt them to relapse even after rehabilitation and months, or even years, of drug-free living. Now, scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have made a discovery that brings them closer to a new therapy based on selectively erasing these dangerous and tenacious drug-associated memories.

View original 399 more words


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