Why my ultimate exam tip is an exam sip!

As the Junior and Leaving Certificate exams kick off today, I want to wish you all good luck and to remind you not to forget to bring a bottle of water with you into your exams!

It’s that time of the year again when the two big state exams – junior and leaving certificates kick off for a generation of Irish youths.  The leaving cert is the hardest exam I’ve ever had to sit  – throughout my years as a student in University, and afterwards working in a laboratory as a neuroscientist, nothing really compared to the intensity of that exam.  

Drink water to improve your grade!

Scientists from the University of East London report that bringing a bottle of water with you into your exam boosts your grade. Students who brought water with them did better in the exam than those without water.  The researchers accounted for the 447 undergraduate students’ prior grades, so it’s not just a matter of smarter students being more likely to bring a bottle of water into the exam.

Drinking water makes you smarter

Controlling for ability from previous coursework results, scientists found those who drank water during the exam scored an average of 5% higher than those who did without.

The ultimate exam tip – is an exam sip!

Scientists explain that there may be a few reasons for this link between bringing water (and presumably drinking it) and better grades:

  1. Previous studies have shown that a dehydration level of just 1% of your body weight reduces your thinking functions, so it makes sense that drinking water improves mental performance.
  2. The desire to drink water (thirst) is driven by a small protein (a peptide) called vasopressin in the brain. Vasopressin has also been implicated in making new memories and with the positive feelings associated with social behaviour thereby leading to a better performance by reducing anxiety in an exam situation,
  3. By offering a momentary distraction – taking a sip of water – drinking water may also break a chain of thoughts and free the mind to focus on the task at hand, leading to better performance – thereby reducing anxiety during the exam.
  4. Drinking water might also just activate a placebo affect – if you believe water boosts your brain power, that belief alone could improve your performance.

The research continues – either way, don’t forget that bottle of water on your next exam.


Lim MM, Young LJ (2004). “Vasopressin-dependent neural circuits underlying pair bond formation in the monogamous prairie vole”. Neuroscience 125 (1): 35–45.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

A new study reveals for the first time that activating the brain’s visual cortex with a small amount of electrical stimulation actually improves our sense of smell. The finding revises our understanding of the complex biology of the senses in the brain.

By training birds to ‘get rhythm’, scientists uncover evidence that our capacity to move in time with music may be connected with our ability to learn speech.

Daily doses of a drug used to treat Parkinson’s disease significantly improved function in severely brain-injured people thought to be beyond the reach of treatment. Scientists have reported on the first rigorous evidence to date that any therapy reliably helps such patients.

Remembering where we left our keys requires at least three different regions of the brain to work together, a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience says.

If you’re a left brain thinker, chances are you use your right hand to hold your cell phone up to your right ear, according to a new study from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

People who experience a traumatic brain injury show a marked decline in the ability to make appropriate financial decisions in the immediate aftermath and a continued impairment on complex financial skills six months later, according to new research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

For the first time, a team led by Carnegie Mellon University neuroscientists has identified how different neural regions communicate to determine what to visually pay attention to and what to ignore. This finding is a major discovery for visual cognition and will guide future research into visual and attention deficit disorders.

Finally this week, Ireland’s neurological charities have come together to launch a new patient information and services website in time for National Brain Awareness Week which takes place next week (05 – 11 March).

Weekly Update: Brain Research

Using a sling or cast after injuring an arm may cause your brain to shift quickly to adjust, according to a study published in the January 17, 2012, print issue of Neurology®. The study found increases in the size of brain areas that were compensating for the injured side, and decreases in areas that were not being used due to the cast or sling.

A  new UC Davis study shows how the brain reconfigures its connections to minimize distractions and take best advantage of our knowledge of situations.

Neuroscientists at Kessler Foundation have documented increased cerebral activation in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) following memory retraining using the modified Story Memory Technique (mSMT).  This is the first study to demonstrate that behavioral interventions can have a positive effect on brain function in people with cognitive disability caused by MS, an important step in validating the clinical utility of cognitive rehabilitation.

A program designed to boost cognition in older adults also increased their openness to new experiences, researchers report, demonstrating for the first time that a non-drug intervention in older adults can change a personality trait once thought to be fixed throughout the lifespan.

Researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King’s College London have, for the first time, identified the facial expression of anxiety. The facial expression for the emotion of anxiety comprises an environmental scanning look that appears to aid risk assessment. The research was published this week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

New research from Uppsala University, Sweden, shows that a specific brain region that contributes to a person’s appetite sensation is more activated in response to food images after one night of sleep loss than after one night of normal sleep. Poor sleep habits can therefore affect people’s risk of becoming overweight in the long run. The findings are published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

Teenagers are more susceptible to developing disorders like addiction and depression, according to a paper published by Pitt researchers Jan. 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Harvard scientists have developed the fullest picture yet of how neurons in the brain interact to reinforce behaviors ranging from learning to drug use, a finding that might open the door to possible breakthroughs in the treatment of addiction.

Virtual reality-enhanced exercise, or “exergames,” combining physical exercise with computer-simulated environments and interactive videogame features, can yield a greater cognitive benefit for older adults than traditional exercise alone, according to a new study published in the February issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Sleeping after a traumatic event might lock in bad memories and emotions, a new study has found.

A team of researchers at the MedUni Vienna’s Department of Neurophysiology (Centre for Brain Research) has discovered a previously unknown effect of opioids – that opioids not only temporarily relieve pain, but at the right dose can also erase memory traces of pain in the spinal cord and therefore eliminate a key cause of chronic pain.


Weekly Brain Research Update

Even for healthy people, stressful moments can take a toll on the brain, a new study from Yale University suggests.

Neuroscientists at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have discovered how the sense of touch is wired in the skin and nervous system.

A new study of how the brain processes unexpected events found that neurons in two important structures handle both positive and negative surprises.

New research finds that brain activity increases during delusional thinking, a finding that may allow new interventions and retraining for people with the disorder.

A new UC Davis study shows how the brain reconfigures its connections to minimize distractions and take best advantage of our knowledge of situations.

Researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) in the UK have found a protein made by blood vessels in the brain that could be a good candidate for regenerative therapies that stimulate the brain to repair itself after injury or disease.

Drinking alcohol leads to the release of endorphins in areas of the brain that produce feelings of pleasure and reward, according to a study led by researchers at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at the University of California, San Francisco


What neuroscience can teach us about teaching

Recent brain research shows that different circuits are called upon in the brain for different activities such as math, music and reading.

In addition, learning and practicing particular skills can cause corresponding areas in the brain to grow or change by adding a tiny fraction of the brain’s neural circuitry and eliminating old ones.

Imaging technologies are helping map the circuits and study variability among children with learning difficulties. Moreover, recent research is providing insight into attention systems in the brain and is shedding light on how we plan, initiate, organize, and most importantly, inhibit certain behaviours.

On Friday, 23rd September, I will be giving a workshop at the Institute of Technology Sligo on what neuroscience can teach us about teaching. This workshop contributes to this dialogue by summarising what we already know about the learning process in the brain and suggests how it might inform the teaching/learning process in the classroom using approaches such as problem-based learning.

I will be touching on the following areas:

1. An overview of how problem-based learning is implemented and assessed in University of Limerick on the Graduate Medical School programme.

2. A review of how the brain learns and memorizes new information

3. An examination of the different brain circuits involved in processing science and maths concepts, music and reading or laboratory skills

4. Recommendations on how we can facilitate and support appropriate learning environments.

If you cannot attend in person, you can still take part in this workshop online.

Book online at http://www.eventbrite.com/event/2174273310 

This webinar was recorded. Click here to access recording.



Weekly Round Up



Is the internet changing the way we think?

In this week’s round-up of the latest discoveries in the field of neuroscience – the evolutionary nature of the brain, how blind people see with their ears, the neuroscience of humour, and how the internet is changing the way we think.

Interesting post on the evolutionary nature of the brain here

Scientists say they have discovered a “maintenance” protein that helps keep nerve fibres that transmit messages in the brain operating smoothly. The University of Edinburgh team says the finding could improve understanding of disorders such as epilepsy, dementia, MS and stroke.

Neuropsychologist, Dr. Olivier Collignon has proved that some blind people can “see” with their ears.  He compared the brain activity of people who can see and people who were born blind, and discovered that the part of the brain that normally works with our eyes to process vision and space perception can actually rewire itself to process sound information instead.

A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that we have much more control over our minds, personalities and personal illnesses than was ever believed to exist before, and it is all occurring at the same time that a flood of other research is exposing the benefits of humor on brain functioning. Nichole Force has written  a post in Psych Central on Humor, Neuroplasticity and the Power To Change Your Mind.

And finally, is the internet changing the way we think? American writer Nicholas Carr believes so and his claims that the internet is not only shaping our lives but physically altering our brains has sparked a debate in the Guardian.

Weekly Round-Up


Why do we love to learn about the brain?

In today’s weekly round-up..how patients with signs of dementia may improve their brain health with exercise, how brain cooling could aid stroke recovery, how brain scans can predict the likely success of giving up smoking, and finally why learning about the brain can become addictive. 

 According to researchers, just 40 minutes of moderate exercise in pensioners physically grows the brain and helps people enhance their brain power. It was found that regular exercise programs work on people already showing signs of dementia and loss of brain function. Meanwhile, McGill’s Dr Véronique Bohbot, believes that spatial strategies can reduce risk of dementia.

Cooling the brain of patients who have suffered a stroke could dramatically improve their recovery, according to research at the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

Were you one of the many who made a New Year’s Resolution to give up smoking?  Brain scans showing neural reactions to pro-health messages can predict if you’ll keep that resolution to quit smoking more accurately than you yourself can. That’s according to a new study forthcoming in Health Psychology.

Finally, in the Psychology Today blog, Dr David Rock asks the question “why is it so engaging, almost addictive, to learn about how your brain functions” and concludes that it is “because it makes life feel richer, and enables us to achieve our intentions”.

What better way to end this week’s round-up! May the learning continue…

How learning changes the shape of your brain

 Neuroeducation – the brain science of learning – is an interdisciplinary field that combines neuroscience, psychology, education theory and practice, and machine learning algorithms to create improved teaching methods and curricula.

The latest scientific research shows that learning actually changes the shape of the brain, allowing specific areas in the brain to grow or change and – most importantly – this brain growth can be accelerated to improve learning and memory using certain approaches to teaching. This new discipline is moving closer to the classroom as researchers understand how young minds develop and learn. 

Why I practice what I preach

As a neuroscientist and teacher I have a keen interest in this area and I have tried to apply the latest findings to my own teaching in the classroom over the past 30 years. I had the honour of being invited to speak at an International Conference on Engaging Pedagogy (ICEP) * in NUI Maynooth last Friday 28th January. This is an annual event that brings together researchers and practitioners in the field of third-level teaching in order to discuss means and methods of improving student engagement. In my talk I discussed how recent findings from neuroscience – the scientific study of the brain – impacts on education and I commented on the fast pace of research in this area over the past five years. You can view my abstract and those of the other presenters here

My talk has prompted me to explore in more detail the nature of neuroeducation and how it can lead to improved teaching and learning. This week on the Inside the Brain blog I will be exploring how certain approaches to teaching act to improve brain function, learning and memory.  

* Click here for ICEP proceedings

Image Credit – Dreamstime

Weekly Update

People’s brains are more responsive to friends than to strangers, even if the stranger has more in common, according to a study in the Oct. 13 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.

In Time magazine’s What Your Brain Looks Like After 20 Years of Marriage, Belinda Luscomb has been taking a look at the neuroscience of love.

And speaking of love, new research has also found that falling in love only takes about a fifth of a second!

And what exactly is going on in your brain if you are looking back with nostalgia at past loves? I came across a fascinating article on the neuroscience of nostalgia and memories.

Now a question for you? How many of you feel you have lost the art of writing by hand, now that we are all so computer literate these days?  Associate professor Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger’s Reading Centre asks if something is lost in switching from book to computer screen, and from pen to keyboard and discovers that writing by hand does indeed strengthen the learning process.

Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting

I have just returned from the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in San Diego, California, at which I made a poster presentation.

The Society for Neuroscience annual meeting is the premier venue for neuroscientists from around the world to debut cutting-edge research. Since 1971, the meeting has offered attendees the opportunity to learn about the latest breakthroughs and network with colleagues at top destinations throughout North America.

One of the highlights of the meeting was a talk on Saturday by award-winning actress Glenn Close whose presentation, entitled “Bringing Change to Mind on Mental Illness,” focused on how science and society can work together to change minds on mental illness. Acknowledging that much work must be done to help the American public understand that mental illness is a brain disease, Close tackled questions like: “how do we reduce misconceptions, stigma, and bias that confront those with conditions like depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD?” and “how can we help the public discern fact from fiction to bring positive change for families struggling with mental illness?” Glenn Close’s nephew, Calen Pick, and her sister, Jessie Close, also spoke about their personal struggles with mental illness.

View the full video of presentation 

On Monday, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a tireless advocate for biomedical research and for people struggling with brain-based illnesses, highlighted his vision for a new campaign for brain research at Neuroscience 2010. Kennedy delivered the special presentation, entitled “A Neuroscience ‘Moonshot’: Rallying a New Global Race for Brain Research,” to a crowd filled with Neuroscience 2010 attendees and the general public at the San Diego Convention Center. His speech addressed the urgency of helping a generation of veterans affected by PTSD and TBI, and how public advocacy combined with growing science funding can help realize major advances in basic research and translational application for all brain-based conditions.

View the full video of Kennedy’s presentation.

I will be writing more in coming posts on the many interesting insights I gained from the meeting.

My poster presentation, SFN 2010, San Diego