How To “Vaccinate” Yourself Against Depression #WorldMentalHealthDay

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Today is World Mental Health Day, which is observed on 10 October every year, with the overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health.

Depression is very common – it is estimated that at least one in five people in Ireland will develop depression during their lifetime. Depression is not to be confused with the normal ups and downs of everyday life. Everyone can feel a bit ‘down’ from time to time as a reaction to an upsetting event, but will start to feel better after a few days or weeks. It is a natural, short-lived response to stressful times in life.

However, some people are unable to escape this low mood, and find it difficult to carry on with life as usual. They may experience low/sad, irritable or indifferent mood, loss of interest and enjoyment in daily life and a general lack of energy. This may be often accompanied by some or all of the following physical symptoms, fatigue and reduced activity, disturbed sleep or excessive sleep, changes in appetite and weight, loss of sex drive, unexplained aches and pains e.g. headache, backache and changes to the menstrual cycle.

Depression affects different people in different ways – not everyone has the same symptoms. Other symptoms include poor concentration or reduced attention, difficulty in making decisions, tearfulness, restlessness, agitation or anxiety, low self-confidence and self-esteem, feelings of guilt, inability to cope with life as before, avoiding other people, bleak view of the future, morbid thoughts, ideas of self-harm.

Treatment is available and recovery is possible.

Starting in the 1960’s neuroscientists regarded depression as a kind of ‘anaemia’ in the brain – a lack of three important neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline in key emotional regions in the brain. Antidepressant drugs were then developed to bring the levels of these neurotransmitters particularly serotonin back to normal. Prozac is a good example of this type of drug and it has proved to be a safe and effective life saver for many the depressed patient.

However, recently neuroscientists have had a radical change of mind with respect to the nature of depression. This change of view is partially due to evidence from brain imaging studies in depressed patients showing dramatic changes in nerve activity in the frontal lobe of the brain.

The importance of the frontal lobe in depression

Nervous activity in the frontal lobes forms our attitudes, plans and strategies and is at least in part under our own control.    This view advocates that depression is in fact a disorder of thinking – a sort of obsessional pessimism from which the depressed patient can see no way out and this is what causes the low neurotransmitter levels.

Wisconsin Study

The WISCONSIN STUDY adds another twist by showing that the brains of depressed individuals actually exhibit the same initial levels of activity in positive/pleasure-generating brain regions. Instead they found differences in the ability to sustain those positive emotions.

Findings from my own research group and others show that three important neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline play a key role in sustaining attention and motivation the brain. Thus low neurotransmitter levels may impair the ability to ‘embed’ these new thoughts and emotions leaving the depressed patient feeling like they are back at square one. This study lends support to notion that depression is best treated by psychological/behavioral treatments or in combination of drugs, not drugs alone.

Thus while antidepressants can help treat the chemical anaemia – good mental heath in particular careful monitoring of your everyday thoughts and attitudes will ensure that negative thoughts are nipped in the bud is also vital in the treatment and even the prevention of depression.

As The World Wide Web Turns 30, How Is The Internet Changing Your Brain? #BrainAwarenessWeek

This day 30 years ago signaled the birth of the World Wide Web, ushering in the information age and revolutionizing life as we know it.

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Former physicist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World-Wide Web as an essential tool for High Energy Physics (HEP) at CERN from 1989 to 1994. Together with a small team he conceived HTML, http, URLs, and put up the first server and the first wysiwyg (what you see is what you get) browser and html editor. (Photo: CERN)

Vague but exciting.”

This was how Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s boss responded when the 33-year-old British physicist submitted his proposal for a decentralized system of information management on March 12, 1989.

Today there are over 4.4 billion internet users worldwide, growing at a rate of more than 11 new users per second. Internet user growth has accelerated in the past year, with more than 366 million new users coming online since January 2018.

This is your brain on the internet

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.

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.

Getting high on social activity

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.

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The image to the left is a view of the human brain cut down the middle. The reward pathway – shown in red – 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

The power of online images

The second feature worth noting 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 social networks like Instagram that use images are so popular.

The internet and the brain share common features

Ed Bullmore, professor of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, has noted how the human brain and the internet have quite a lot in common.

“They are both highly non-random networks with a “small world” architecture, meaning that there is both dense clustering of connections between neighbouring nodes and enough long-range short cuts to facilitate communication between distant nodes, ” he points out.

Both the internet and the brain have a wiring diagram dominated by a relatively few, very highly connected nodes or hubs; and both can be subdivided into a number of functionally specialised families or modules of nodes. – Ed Bullmore

Berner Lee’s thoughts on the world wide web today

While the invention of the world wide web has changed our world in many positive ways, there is a dark side that has recently emerged.

In an open letter to mark the anniversary, Berner Lee questioned what it has become on the 30th anniversary of its creation, noting democracy and privacy were now under serious threat.

But he added it wasn’t too late to straighten the ship’s course.

“If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web,” he wrote. “It’s our journey from digital adolescence to a more mature, responsible and inclusive future.”

We could equally apply these words to the neurobiology of internet usage. Whether the internet is changing our minds for the better or not is a debate that coalesced around Nicholas Carr’s book published a decade ago The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains).  Carr argues that the internet is making us “more stupid” as we are losing the ability to concentrate and remember.

Perhaps the question is less about how the internet is changing our brains, but more accurately how is it changing our thinking.

But that’s a debate for another day.

Since we’re not going to dismantle the world wide web any time soon, the most important question is: how should we respond?

Is The Internet Changing Your Brain? #SaferInternetDay

Today, on #SaferInternetDay, I thought it a good time to return to a topic I’ve spoken about over the years. The question of whether our brains are being altered due to our increasing reliance on search engines, social networking sites, and other digital technologies, is always a timely one.

The Internet can be a force for positive change (as with new ‘cybertherapies’ to help patients with addiction and post-traumatic stress disorders), but equally, it can have a negative effect on mental health – especially with young people.

Today, I’m giving a talk to parents on the pros and cons of gaming and why gaming is so attractive to young people. I want to offer parents an opportunity to create a balance in their child’s world through understanding what is going on inside their child’s brain.

The talk takes place at Nenagh Arts Centre, Co Tipperary.  If you can’t attend in person, I’ll be sharing my slides later this week on SlideShare so check back in again.

This event is FREE but it is essential to book a seat with the Arts Centre on 067 34400 or through Eventbrite. 

This Is Your Brain On Gratitude

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“Thank you” doesn’t just bring light to people’s faces. It also lights up different parts of the brain.

In honor of Thanksgiving, I’d like to share this article with you from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

Evidence is mounting that gratitude makes a powerful impact on our bodies, including our immune and cardiovascular health. But how does gratitude work in the brain?

A team at the University of Southern California has shed light on the neural nuts and bolts of gratitude in a new study, offering insights into the complexity of this social emotion and how it relates to other cognitive processes.

There seems to be a thread that runs through subtle acts of gratitude, such as holding a door for someone, all the way up to the big powerful stuff like when someone gives you a kidney,” says Glenn Fox, a postdoctoral researcher at USC and lead author of the study. “I designed this experiment to see what aspects of brain function are common to both these small feelings of appreciation and large feelings of gratitude.

In their experiment, Fox and his team planned to scan participants’ brains while they were feeling grateful to see where gratitude showed up.

The researchers found that grateful brains showed enhanced activity in two primary regions: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). These areas have been previously associated with emotional processing, interpersonal bonding and rewarding social interactions, moral judgment, and the ability to understand the mental states of others.

A lot of people conflate gratitude with the simple emotion of receiving a nice thing. What we found was something a little more interesting,” says Fox. “The pattern of [brain]activity we see shows that gratitude is a complex social emotion that is really built around how others seek to benefit us.

In other words, gratitude isn’t merely about reward—and doesn’t just show up in the brain’s reward center. It involves morality, connecting with others, and taking their perspective.

In further studies, Fox hopes to investigate what’s going on in the body as gratitude improves our health and well-being.

It’s really great to see all the benefits that gratitude can have, but we are not done yet. We still need to see exactly how it works, when it works, and what are the best ways to bring it out more,” he says. “Enhancing our knowledge of gratitude pulls us closer to our own human dignity and what we can do to benefit each other.

You might also like to read When You Are Grateful, Your Brain Becomes More Charitable

How Stress Affects The Brain #StressAwarenessDay

Stress isn’t always a bad thing; it can be handy for a burst of extra energy and focus, like when you’re playing a competitive sport or have to speak in public. But when it’s continuous, it actually begins to change your brain. In this video, Madhumita Murgia shows how chronic stress can affect brain size, its structure, and how it functions, right down to the level of your genes

Brain, belief and the nature of Frankenstein

This is a slide-deck from my recent presentation entitled: Brain, belief and the nature of Frankenstein at Frankenweek@UL.The week-long event marked the international celebration of the 200th Anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for Halloween 2018. The workshop gave me the opportunity to explore how our brain provides differing insights, values and priorities in shaping beliefs, and in how we understand ourselves in the world.

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Rewiring The Brain: Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks

For decades, scientists thought that the adult human brain was static and unchanging. But in the last few decades, we have learned that the adult brain is more dynamic than we ever imagined.  In fact, the human brain is malleable and can change in response to new experiences.  It is adaptable, like plastic – hence the term “neuroplasticity.”

Learn more about neuroplasticity in this infographic.

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The Neuroscience of Memory

Our memories are our lives, and a fundamental basis of our culture. Collective memoirs of the past both bind society together and shape our potential future. With our brains we can travel through time and space, calling to mind places of significance, evoking images and emotions of past experiences. It’s no wonder, then, that we so desperately fear the prospect of memory loss.

Many regions of the brain are involved in memory, but one of the most critical components is the hippocampus, which plays a crucial role in the formation of long-term memories. Damage to the hippocampus can therefore result in significant memory loss. In this video, Eleanor Maguire draws on evidence from virtual reality, brain imaging and studies of amnesia to show that the consequences of hippocampal damage are even more far-reaching than suspected, robbing us of our past, our imagination and altering our perception of the world. Maguire also explains how, despite our beliefs, our memories are not actually as accurate as you might think. In fact, they’re not really even about the past.