Weekly Neuroscience Update


Image:  Bansal et al., PLOS Computational Biology, October 2018.

Scientists are using computational models of the brain to simulate how the structure of the brain may impact brain activity and, ultimately, human behavior. The research focuses on interconnectivity, looking at how different regions are linked to and interact with one another.

Using a green filter helps to increase reading speed for children with dyslexia, researchers report.

Using three different training models, researchers report mental training, mindfulness and meditation can induce structural brain plasticity and reduce social stress.

A new study reports sleep helps improve learning performance in predictable processes.

A new brain imaging study reveals how the midbrain and striatum, two key areas of the dopamine system, become more active when a person updates their beliefs about the world around them.

Researchers report deep brain stimulation has little benefit for those suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Finally this week, a decade worth of data reveals people who multitask with different forms of media at once are worse at completing simple memory tasks.

Could this tactic help you give up smoking and other addictions?

Over the past three decades I have visited high schools and colleges to talk on how addictive drugs affect the brain and to explain the many theories about why certain people become addicted. There are as many reasons why someone becomes addicted as there are addicts. This situation is not helped by the fact that we cannot yet predict who will become addicted, or how to cure it.

Psychiatrist Judson Brewer studies the relationship between mindfulness and addiction — from smoking to overeating to all those other things we do even though we know they’re bad for us. In this short video, you will learn more about the mechanism of habit development and discover a simple but profound tactic that might help you beat your next urge to smoke, snack or check a text while driving.

Inside The Compassionate Brain

Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., is the science director of the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center. In this video for the Mindfulness and Compassion conference, Dr. Simon-Thomas explains the neurological mechanisms that support compassion – and why mindfulness meditation can help support the growth of compassion.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

The study revealed that EGFR signaling is suppressed in a subset of glioblastomas. This image is for illustrative purposes only and shows an MRI brain scan of a person with glioblastoma brain cancer. Credit The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

The study revealed that EGFR signaling is suppressed in a subset of glioblastomas. This image is for illustrative purposes only and shows an MRI brain scan of a person with glioblastoma brain cancer. Credit The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

Researchers have found one of the keys to why certain glioblastomas – the primary form of a deadly brain cancer – are resistant to drug therapy. The answer lies not in the DNA sequence of the tumor, but in its epigenetic signature. These findings have been published online as a priority report in the journal Oncotarget.

It has been proposed that green tea extract may have a beneficial impact on cognitive functioning, suggesting promising clinical implications. However, the neural mechanisms underlying this putative cognitive enhancing effect of green tea extract still remain unknown.

According to researchers at the University of Montreal, the regions of the brain below the cortex play an important role as we train our bodies’ movements and, critically, they interact more effectively after a night of sleep.

Researchers find that the risk of future stroke is 39% higher among patients with cognitive impairment than those with normal cognitive function, according to a new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).

A study is shining new light on a sleep disorder called “sleep drunkenness.” The disorder may be as prevalent as affecting one in every seven people. The research is published in Neurology.

A mindfulness-based therapy for depression has the added benefit of reducing health-care visits among patients who often see their family doctors, according to a new study.

In what may be the largest study of sleep problems among individuals with multiple sclerosis (MS), researchers at UC Davis have found that widely undiagnosed sleep disorders may be at the root of the most common and disabling symptom of the disease: fatigue.

Scientists have provided the first evidence that the lack of a naturally occurring protein is linked to early signs of dementia.

Set your Brain to Meditate: Part 3

This is the third part in this series on mindfulness and today we will be taking a look at our mental images and preconceived ideas, more on mindlessness, the power of imagination and the role of intuition in our lives.

Ms. Havisham in Dickens’s Great Expectations

We need to be careful not to hold on to outmoded opinions and attitudes  – false frozen mental images –  best exemplified in Ms. Havisham in Dickens’s Great Expectations – who continued to wear her wedding dress in which she was abandoned many years before and which hung in torn and faded threads over her aged body.

Even a child can fall into this trap – for instance by regarding all old men as grumpy after just one experience with a grumpy old man and this impression may even be carried into adulthood.  In not bothering to change this perception in later life – a person can be locked into a false perception in later life that is likely to be reflected in their own experience – they will turn into an old grump too!  –  and this of course applies to other aspects of life.

Context is everything

Mindlessness results when people accept information without taking the context into account. However in mindfulness context is everything! In fact, psychologists argue that all pain is context dependent. Getting a bruise out on the football pitch will matter much less to us than if we sustain one at home.

The power of imagination

Imagination is the key to perceiving things differently. The Birdman of Alcatraz stuck in his prison cell for over 40 years managed to make his life a rich one by taking care of injured birds.  The message is simple – you can put up with anything as long as it is within a positive context – and with a personal vision everything can be put into perspective. In the famous words of Nitzche “If you have a WHY you can put up with almost any HOW”.

It’s not what you do – it’s the way that you do it!

Another key characteristic of mindfulness is a focus on process before outcome – doing rather than achieving. We look at a text book and assume that the author must be a genius …but this is a faulty comparison.  With rare exceptions most successes in life are the result of years of work that can be broken down into stages. Before you face any task no matter how daunting – ask not ‘can I do it?  – But – HOW can I do it?’  This type of approach sharpens your judgment and leads to increased self confidence.

Intuition is effortless and it works!

Sometimes it’s good to drop old habits and expectations and try something that may go against reason. Intuition is an important path to mindfulness. It may surprise you to know that the best scientists are intuitive – many spending years methodically validating what appeared to them in a flash of intuitive truth.

Intuition is achieved by escaping the heavy single minded striving of everyday life. It is believed to occur on those rare occasions when both hemispheres of the brain – the logical left side and the holistic right side – have a brief uninterrupted conversation. Intuition gives valuable information about our survival and success – ignore it at your cost.

The mindful person will go with what works even if it doesn’t make sense!

In summary, the beauty of mindfulness is that it is not work. It leads to greater control of your own thinking and can create a sense of quiet excitement about what is possible.

Try it and see for yourself!

Set Your Brain To Meditate

Part 1

Part 2

Set your Brain to Meditate: Part 2

Image: Photostock

The Buddhist understanding holds that meditation is a mindful state that leads to ‘right action’. When combined with mindfulness it has the same effect not just for the health of the individual but also for greater society.

Our tendency to look at the negatives, to put outcomes ahead of actually doing things and by making faulty comparisons with others can leave us like feeling like robots at the mercy of daily events. In essence mindfulness is about preserving our individuality – through openness to the new, reclassifying the meaning of our knowledge and experience and by an ability to see our daily actions in a bigger consciously chosen perspective.

When good categories turn bad

Rather than always look at things afresh and anew – we create categories – and let things ‘fall into them’. We do this for the sake of convenience. These categorisations can be small such as defining a flower as a rose, a person as a boss – or a wider categorization – such as a religion or a political system. These categories help to give us psychological certainty and save us from the effort of constantly challenging our own beliefs. In this way we define animals as ‘livestock’ or ‘pets’ so that we can feel OK eating one and loving the other.

Shhhh….there’s a secret to being a genius

Mindlessness is when we accept these categories without really thinking about them. In contrast, mindfulness is about questioning old categories and creating new ones. In fact ‘genius’ has been described as perceiving things afresh, in a non habitual way.

Let me leave you with a quote from Marcel Proust’s great novel In Search of Lost Time Past to illustrate what I mean and check back in later this week for Part 3 of this meditation series.

We commonly live with a self reduced to its bare minimum; most of our faculties lie dormant, relying on habit; and habit knows how to manage without them.

Read the first part of this series here

Set Your Brain to Meditate

Ursula Bates, Billy O'Connor

Ms Ursula Bates, keynote speaker, UL Research Forum and Professor Billy O'Connor

I was delighted to host the  Fourth Annual  University of Limerick Medical School Research Forum last Wednesday, 19 January, where over twenty researchers from the University of Limerick and local teaching hospitals made presentations on topics ranging from pharmaceuticals, biomedical devices, medical technology, community health, gastrointestinal and vascular surgery, psychiatry and communications.

A leading clinical psychologist and Director of Psychosocial and Bereavement Services at Blackrock Hospice, Dublin, Ms Ursula Bates, delivered the keynote address  Mindfulness Based Interventions in Oncology and Palliative Care and Bereavement-Research Advances”.

Ursula’s talk has prompted me to explore in more detail the nature of mindfulness and how its practice can lead to improved brain function and  mental health.

Let’s start by taking a look at the latest scientific research which has shown that  the practice of meditation  actually changes the shape of the brain, allowing specific areas in the brain to grow or change.  This finding has established a new field of contemplative neuroscience – the brain science of meditation – and helps to explain how meditation acts to improve brain function and mental health.

Mindfulness and mindlessness

Have you ever written a cheque in January with the previous years date? …for most of us the answer is probably yes. Scientists now know that these small mistakes are actually the tip of a mindlessness iceberg!  Mindfulness harnesses one of the great themes in all self help literature – the need to be free of unconsciously accepted habits and norms.

Five qualities of a mindful person

  1. Ability to create new categories
  2. Openness to new information
  3. Awareness of more than one perspective
  4. Attention to process (i.e. ‘doing’) rather than outcome or results.
  5. Trusting in one’s own intuition

Over the coming week we will explore these points in more detail and look at ways in which we can learn to break free from the trap of mindlessness.