The Effect of Social Media on the Brain

Slide-deck from presentation: The Effect of Social Media on the Brain – at the Safety and Wellbeing on CyberMedia Conference hosted by the Tipperary Children and Young People’s Services Committee. The Conference provided a forum to discuss social media and its impact on children and young people and marked International Safer Internet Day.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

Is music really a “universal language”? Two articles in Science support the idea that music all around the globe shares important commonalities, despite many differences.

Researchers studying six adults who had one of their brain hemispheres removed during childhood to reduce epileptic seizures found that the remaining half of the brain formed unusually strong connections between different functional brain networks, which potentially help the body to function as if the brain were intact. 

Excessive exposure to certain antibiotics can predispose a person to Parkinson’s disease, with a delay of onset of up to 15 years.

Findings debunk the common theory that attention is the only cognitive function affected by sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep also hinders a person’s ability to complete activities that require following multiple steps.

A new study reveals how the insular cortex helps assess and predict physiological states of the body. The findings shed light on the neural basis for interoception.

Finally this week, neuroscientists have discovered how the listening brain scans speech to break it down into syllables. The findings provide for the first time a neural basis for the fundamental atoms of language and insights into our perception of the rhythmic poetry of speech. 

Why Keeping New Year’s Resolutions Is All In The Mind

Happy New Year!

Have you made any new year’s resolutions this year?

Despite the high failure rate of these resolutions – research by British psychologist Richard Wiseman in 2007  has shown that 88% of all resolutions end in failure – many continue to make the same resolutions year in and year out.

But just why are our old habit so hard to break?

The Science of Willpower

The brain area largely responsible for willpower is the prefrontal cortex (located just behind the forehead). This area of the brain is also in charge of keeping us focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems.

Author Johan Lehrer writing in the Wall Street Journal proposed that adding new year’s resolutions to an overloaded prefrontal cortex is a sure-fire recipe for failure.

He referred to an experiment led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, where several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

What do you think happened?

The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Prof. Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation. “A tired brain, preoccupied with its problems, is going to struggle to resist what it wants, even when what it wants isn’t what we need.” writes Lehrer.

So instead of blaming our own lack of discipline in not keeping to our resolutions, perhaps this research shows that the power of will is not enough due to the very nature of the brain.

So now we know what doesn’t work when it comes to keeping those resolutions, let’s take a look at what might help.

How To Keep New Year’s Resolutions

Lehrer suggests we think of willpower as a muscle that needs to be strengthened. Prof Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University who has pioneered the muscle metaphor, suggests that it might be possible to strengthen willpower by exercising it.

He asked a group of students to improve their posture for two weeks, thereby practicing mental discipline in one area. The students showed a marked improvement on subsequent measures of self-control, at least when compared to a group that didn’t work on posture control.

If this sounds like too much hard work, you could always try the tried and tested goal-setting approach to making positive change stick.

Think about some small changes you could make in your lifestyle that would help to bring about your ultimate goal.  The cumulative impact of a modest change to your daily routine will restore in you the feeling that you are in control.

Above all, don’t use your resolutions as a stick to beat yourself with. Ditch the negative connotations and instead focus on what those small changes will bring to your life in a positive way in the coming year.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

A holographic image of the human brain. The image is credited to Case Western Reserve.

Researchers have used the HoloLense software to create an interactive holographic mapping system for axonal pathways in the human brain.

Does Parkinson’s disease (PD) start in the brain or the gut? In a new contribution published in the Journal of Parkinson’s Disease, scientists hypothesize that PD can be divided into two subtypes: gut-first, originating in the peripheral nervous system (PNS) of the gut and spreading to the brain; and brain-first, originating in the brain, or entering the brain via the olfactory system, and spreading to the brainstem and peripheral nervous system.

In the largest study of its kind, researchers identified similarities in the brain activity of people with major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders.

A new theory, inspired by thermodynamics, takes a high-level perspective of how neural networks in the brain transiently organize to give rise to memories, thought and consciousness.

For the first time, researchers have extracted and isolated amyloid beta (Aβ) fibrils from the brains of three people who had died of Alzheimer’s disease.

A new study has revelled that deep sleep restores the medial prefrontal cortex mechanisms that restore emotion. This lowers emotional and physiological reactivity, preventing the escalation of stress and anxiety.

The largest brain imaging study of its kind may have found the reason why people with anxiety and mood disorders so often feel unable to escape negative thoughts and emotions.

Finally this week, researchers have now developed a novel computational approach to accelerate finding optimal stimuli, by building deep artificial neural networks that can accurately predict the neural responses produced by a biological brain to arbitrary visual stimuli.

The Neurobiology of Kindness #WorldKindnessDay

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Today is World Kindness Day. Kindness is a fundamental part of the human condition and bridges the divides of culture, religion, politics, gender, and social class.

Why does Kindness Exist?

Until recently, the task of applying what we know about the brain to the bigger question of personal human experience has been avoided by scientists. However the emergence of the new discipline of neuroscience – the scientific study of the nervous system – is helping us to bridge this gap by providing new ways to answer such age-old questions as why does kindness exist, and why is it important? To answer these questions we first need to consider an important property of nerve cells (neurons) in the human brain.

The Neurobiology of Kindness

The discovery of mirror neurons, a cluster of neurons in the brain that help connect us emotionally to other people, respond sympathetically towards others and allow us to anticipate others intentions is now believed to be the basis of human empathy. Mirror neurons were first discovered by neuroscientists in the 1990s while recording the activity of neurons in the brain where it was noticed that certain populations of neurons remain silent (observation) and active (imitation) when we watch others perform the same action, hence the name mirror neurons [1,2]. Scientists have extended this finding in the human brain to show that nerve activity in mirror neurons also behaves in the same way when we see another person expressing an emotion, and this nerve activity is not observed in disorders of empathy [3].

Kindness is the Engine for Personal Growth

Each person is a mirror of their environment which is then in turn mirrored by their own behaviour. This underlies the powerful phenomenon of social contagion – that information, ideas, and behaviors including kindness can spread through networks of people the way that infectious diseases do. For this reason, giving and receiving kindness can have a contagious effect.  Research also shows that optimal learning takes place in an environment that is creative, inclusive, rewarding and bolstered by firm, healthy boundaries, in an environment that is kind.  Even those in deep distress due to imprisonment, addiction, financial worries, and high anxiety also benefit greatly from an environment that is creative, inclusive and boundaried.

What to do when we encounter unkindness? Behaviours including anxiety, anger and rudeness can also spread through networks of people in the same way that infectious diseases do. The antidote to becoming infected with these miserable states is to be aware that every action must be consciously chosen, and not an emotional response. Another tip is to always give the benefit of the doubt when dealing with other human beings. More often than not you will be proven right.

Survival of the Kindest

Why is kindness so important? This question can be answered in the context that every single human being is unique because we each poses a uniquely complex brain, so complex that in all of human history no two human brains can be identical. This is because the unique combination of about 100 trillion tiny brain connections (synapses) that grow and change throughout life is an ongoing work in progress from conception to death. In this way we each one of us ‘evolve’ as true individuals as we each make our journey through life. Kindness is the green light to keep going. If you are not open to giving and receiving kindness then you may not be growing. In the same way, humankind will only evolve by making room for each and every individual to express their intellectual and spiritual evolution to the full.  In this way, the evolution of the human race has everything to do with being open to giving and receiving kindness.

 


References

  1. Mirror Neurons. Society for Neuroscience (2013) http://www.brainfacts.org/brain-basics/neuroanatomy/articles/2008/mirror-neurons/
  2. Kraskov A, Dancause N, Quallo MM, Shepherd S and Lemon RN. (2009) Corticospinal neurons in macaque ventral premotor cortex with mirror properties: A potential mechanism for action suppression? Neuron 64, 922-930.
  3. Corradini A, Antonietti A. (2013) Mirror neurons and their function in cognitively understood empathy. Consciousness and Cognition. 22, 1152–1161.

 

 

 

Weekly Neuroscience Update

This image shows the developing brain visualized with fluorescence laser scanning microscopy. It illustrates the neurons (blue) and growing axons (red and green). Image INc-UAB.

Researchers have identified a new cell mechanism that connects Alzheimer’s disease and cancers.

The human brain can recognise a familiar song within 100 to 300 milliseconds, highlighting the deep hold favourite tunes have on our memory, a UCL study finds.

A new method allows researchers to detect serotonin at extremely low concentrations in serum.

New research shows for the first time that patients with mood and anxiety disorders share the same abnormalities in regions of the brain involved in emotional and cognitive control. The findings hold promise for the development of new treatments targeting these regions of the brain in patients with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and anxiety disorders.

Artificial intelligence is helping shed light on how people’s brains, bodies, and emotions react to listening to music. 

Researchers have identified a set of neurons, located in a region of the hypothalamus, that may be the switch that turns the brain off, allowing for sleep. The neurons are also tied to body temperature regulation.

According to new research, musical intervention can help to improve mood and decrease agitation in those with dementia.

Performance on two quick tests ― a cognitive screen and an olfactory test ― may rule out future dementia, including Alzheimer disease (AD), for patients with mild memory problems, results of a large follow-up study show.

Features of the functional connectome are present in the fetal brain during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.

Finally this week, a new study reveals how acetate, a byproduct of alcohol breakdown, travels to the brain’s learning system and alters proteins that regulate DNA function.

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween! In keeping with the Halloween theme, here is a slide-deck from my presentation entitled: Brain, belief and the nature of Frankenstein, which I gave last year 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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Weekly Neuroscience Update

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Oxford University researchers have discovered that learned knowledge is stored in different brain circuits depending on how we acquire it.

Neuroscientists say they have identified how people can have a “crash in visual processing” — a bottleneck of feedforward and feedback signals that can cause us not to be consciously aware of stimuli that our brain recognized.

A new study shows that an innovative strategy for treating Parkinson’s disease has proven successful in neurons that derive from people living with the condition.

A new study reveals the gut has a much more direct connection to the brain through a neural circuit that allows it to transmit signals in mere seconds. The findings could lead to new treatments for obesity, eating disorders, and even depression and autism—all of which have been linked to a malfunctioning gut.

New research shows musical improvisation improves cognitive flexibility and increases inhibitory control.

A UCLA-led study has found that MRI scans can help doctors distinguish whether a person’s memory loss is being caused by Alzheimer’s disease or by traumatic brain injury.

A new study suggests a longer duration of estrogen exposure hormone therapy was associated with better cognition in older adult women.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

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A newly developed microfluidic device microfluidic device allowed researchers to keep tissue from the suprachiasmatic nucleus alive for over 25 days.

Neuroscientists have proved how different parts of the human brain work together to create and retrieve episodic memory.  Models suggested that, during formation of a memory, information is routed from cortex to hippocampus whilst retrieving a memory should see this information flow in reverse.

A collaborative study published today in the journal Cell Reports provides evidence for a new molecular cause for neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers have identified brain circuitry differences that might be associated with suicidal behavior in individuals with mood disorders. The study, published in Psychological Medicine, provides a promising lead toward tools that can predict which individuals are at the highest risk for suicide.

A period of wakeful rest can help reduce memory intrusions associated with PTSD.

Does dementia spread gradually and evenly in all directions across the brain, or can it “jump” from one brain area to another? New research helps to settle the question by examining the progression of frontotemporal dementia.

Examining postmortem brains of autism spectrum disorder patients, researchers discover an accumulation of immune cells surrounding blood vessels in the brain.

Your personality type may influence addiction to certain drugs, a new study reveals. Those whose personalities rank higher for impulsivity are more likely to use ecstasy, while those who score higher for neurotic traits are more likely to use opioid like heroin, researchers report.

Finally this week, researchers have mapped out some of the mechanisms that may affect women’s fertility from the teenage years to menopause.

 

 

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.