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16 February

A rare side effect of smoking weed is experiencing psychosis or paranoia; researchers have identified a gene variant that predicts a person's risk for this happening.

In a new study of more than 400 healthy young stoners with no family history of psychosis, people with a variant of this gene experienced more mind-altering symptoms when they were high. Although such symptoms are temporary, they might signal higher risk for developing psychotic disorders in the future.

"To find that having this gene variant means that you are more prone to mind-altering affects of cannabis when you don't have psychosis gives us a clue as to how it increases risk in healthy people," coauthor Celia Morgan, of the University of Exeter, said in a statement. "Putting yourself repeatedly in a psychotic or paranoid state might be one reason why these people could go on to develop psychosis when they might not have done otherwise."

Previous research has suggested that cannabis can bump up the risk for psychotic disorders like schizophrenia in a small fraction of its users. People with a family history of psychosis are also more sensitive to the temporary mind-altering effects that can accompany marijuana use, such as hallucinations or delusions.

One variant of a gene called AKT1 may underlie this vulnerability. Among people who carry two copies of this version of the gene, a history of cannabis use is linked with heightened risk of developing psychosis.

The people in these studies had all experienced psychosis or schizophrenia, or had a sibling with schizophrenia. In the new experiment, researchers in the United Kingdom wanted to find out whether this gene might also exert an influence on stoners with no family history of psychosis.

The team gathered 422 people between the ages of 16 and 23 who used cannabis at least once a month, and told them to abstain for 24 hours before two testing days a week apart.

One of those days, the participants stayed sober. They completed a few questionnaires and short-term memory tests, as well as providing samples of urine and hair (which offers a picture of drug use over the past several months).

On the other day, the scientists told the participants to get high. The participants prepped their cannabis (this experiment was BYO weed) and offered up a 0.3-gram sample to be analyzed for its composition.

"The participant then smoked cannabis in front of the experimenter who told participants to smoke at their usual inhalation rate, and to smoke as much as they would normally do to feel 'stoned.' At this point, the testing began," wrote the researchers, who published the findings today in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

The researchers used cheek swabs to find out whether participants had one, two, or zero copies of the variant of AKT1.

The more copies someone had of this gene variant, the more likely they were to have mind-altering symptoms while stoned. A person's gender, ethnicity, years of cannabis use, cannabis dependence or marijuana composition did not predict whether they would have these symptoms.

On the memory test, gender alone was related to how well people did. On the more difficult part of the test, women's performance took a hit when they were stoned.

"Animal studies have found that males have more of the receptors that cannabis works on in parts of the brain important in short term memory, such as the prefrontal cortex," Morgan said. "Our findings indicate that men could be less sensitive to the memory impairing effects of cannabis than females."

Cannabis did have stronger effects on the users who smoked less often, and a higher proportion of women than men were infrequent users. So it's possible that differences in how much men and women regularly toked up played a role this disparity, too.

The findings are the first to connect the AKT1 gene in healthy people with a temporary psychosis-like response to marijuana, which scientists consider a marker for developing psychosis later on. This gene, and the proteins it codes for, could be investigated for developing new treatments for cannabis-induced psychosis, the researchers said.

10 February

How fit someone is in midlife may predict how their brain will have aged decades in the future, according to research published today in the journal Neurology.

In the study, which spanned more than 20 years, researchers saw that middle-aged people who had poor fitness ended up with smaller brain volume than their fitter peers.

Typically, the brain shrinks at a rate of about 0.2 percent a year in older age. Scientists have linked dementia and cognitive decline with an acceleration in this process. Fortunately, research has also shown that the brain is still plastic late in life, and that exercise can help older people stave off brain atrophy. In one study, for example, people between 55 and 80 years old were able to increase the volume of their hippocampus, a memory-related region, by 2 percent after one year with an aerobic walking group.

Less is known about how a person's fitness throughout life might relate to later brain aging. To find out, researchers asked 1,583 healthy people with an average age of 40 to run on a treadmill until they were too exhausted to continue or had reached a certain heart rate. To get a picture of each person's fitness level and exercise capacity, the researchers logged the amount of time people spent on the treadmill, as well as how their heart rate and blood pressure went up as they started to run.

Two decades later, the researchers repeated the treadmill test and took MRI scans of the participants' brains. The researchers discounted those participants who developed heart disease or began taking beta-blocker medications to treat high blood pressure. Of the 1,094 remaining participants, those who'd been in poor shape in middle age had smaller brain volume than people who'd had better fitness. This difference persisted even after the researchers controlled for other factors like smoking.

"During the treadmill test, people with about 17 beats per minute higher heart rate or 14 units higher diastolic blood pressure had smaller brains later in life, at a rate that we would say was equal to one year accelerated aging," said coauthor Nicole Spartano, a postdoctoral fellow at the Boston University School of Medicine.

The older participants also took a second, shorter treadmill test so the researchers could check their heart rate and blood pressure again. An exaggerated surge in people's heart rate, which signals poorer fitness, was associated with a smaller brain. But this time their blood pressure response to exercise didn't have any association with brain size.

When the researchers repeated the analysis with the whole pool, this time including people with heart disease and those on blood pressure medication, the relationship between fitness and brain volume was more pronounced.

"Fitness may be especially important for prevention of brain aging in people with heart disease or at risk for heart disease," Spartano said.

This study showed a link between poor fitness in middle age and reduced brain volume later in life; the results don't tell whether the first directly causes the second.

"But from other studies we know that training programs that improve fitness may increase blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain over the short term," Spartano said. "Over the course of a lifetime, improved blood flow may have an impact on brain aging and prevent cognitive decline in older age."

Genetics can also contribute to a person's fitness level, which the researchers did not examine in this study. In future, the team plans to track exercise and brain size at more frequent points, and to see whether the results translate to a more diverse population (this study included mostly white people of European ancestry).

"Instead of just using snap-shots of fitness or brain structure and function, we hope to be able to look at changes in these lifestyle factors and how they relate to changes in brain structure and function over time," Spartano said.

05 February

This week the World Health Organization declared Zika virus a public health emergency of international concern.

Despite high rates of infection, the outbreak would not have been particularly alarming – since the infection is usually asymptomatic (80% of cases) or mild and self-limiting – had it not been for the sudden and (apparently associated) increase in numbers of infants born with microcephaly.

What is microcephaly?

Microcephaly is a condition in which the infant's head is smaller than "normal" for the infant's age and gender, because of delayed or arrested brain growth. There is no universally agreed definition. Most authorities suggest it should be defined by a head circumference of two – but some say three – standard deviations or more below the average.

It is often first diagnosed by ultrasound examination during pregnancy. The incidence of microcephaly – in the absence of Zika virus infection – is difficult to determine.

Apart from the lack of an agreed definition or definitive diagnostic test, there is probably significant under-reporting of the condition. State-based surveillance in the United States – where Zika virus is not endemic – suggests it occurs in between two and 12 infants per 10,000 live births. Rates vary from 0.5 to 19 in 10,000 live births in different states.

If the incidence were similar in Brazil, where about three million infants are born each year, this would represent 600-3,600 cases a year. This is more than estimates based on recent review of birth certificates – approximately 0.5 per 10,000 live births.

Some of the approximately 4,000 cases reported in Brazil during 2015 may have been due to increased awareness and reporting – although there appears to have been a real increase also.

Microcephaly is often associated with other developmental abnormalities and with varying degrees of intellectual and developmental delay, seizures, and visual and hearing loss. In severe cases it can be life-threatening.


There are many recognized causes of microcephaly including a number of other infections in pregnant women. These include rubella, cytomegalovirus (a common virus that causes asymptomatic infection or a mild glandular fever-like illness in otherwise healthy people and severe disease in people with severe immune suppression such as AIDS), herpes simplex virus infections, syphilis and toxoplasmosis (a parasitic disease).

Chikungunya, a virus spread by the same mosquito responsible for spreading Zika (the Aedes aegypti, or yellow fever mosquito), has also been shown to cause brain damage in infants of women infected during pregnancy in a naïve population (one without previous exposure to the virus).

Noninfective causes of microcephaly include a variety of genetic disorders, maternal exposure to drugs, alcohol, chemical toxins and radiation and severe malnutrition.

Is Zika to blame?

Although Zika virus has not yet been definitively proven to be the cause of the increased numbers of infants with microcephaly in Brazil, there is strong circumstantial and epidemiological evidence that it is, at least partly, responsible.

Many of the mothers of affected babies in Brazil reported an illness consistent with Zika virus infection in early pregnancy. However, this was often mistaken for dengue and not confirmed by laboratory tests.

The peak incidence of microcephaly occurred in the same geographic region (northeastern Brazil) about a year after an outbreak of dengue-like illness, with fever and rash, started. Six months later Zika virus was identified as the cause.

There have been several reports of detection of Zika virus genetic material (nucleic acid) in amniotic fluid, placentas, tissues of infants who have died with microcephaly and in live-born infants, with or without microcephaly, of mothers who have had Zika virus infection during pregnancy. It is highly likely that maternal Zika virus infection can damage the developing fetal brain. But the level of risk is unknown.

The other major uncertainly about Zika virus infection and microcephaly is the level of risk at different stages of pregnancy. Because the infection is so frequently asymptomatic or easily mistaken for other viral infections, the number of pregnant women infected and the stage of pregnancy at which infections occur are unknown.

For most intrauterine (within the uterus) infections that cause fetal damage (such as rubella or cytomegalovirus, for which these risks are well-known), the risk of the fetus being infected from the mother is relatively low in early pregnancy and increases with increasing gestation.

However, if fetal infection does, in fact, occur early in pregnancy, the fetus is more likely to be severely affected than if it occurs in the later stages of pregnancy. This is yet to be determined for Zika virus infection.

Hopefully, studies and enhanced surveillance of Zika virus infection and birth defects will provide answers to these questions. These are underway in Brazil.

In the meantime, while overall rates of Zika virus remain high, pregnant women are being advised to defer travel to Zika-affected countries if possible. Those who live there are advised to defer pregnancy or take extra precautions to avoid mosquito bites.

This article first appeared on The Conversation and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

05 February

From rolling over to walking and saying words, most parents will remember the exact age at which their child achieved a certain "milestone." They will often also compare these early "rites of passage" to the progress of a sibling, cousin or friend, or to charts in the myriad parenting books setting out the ages at which children should develop certain skills.

For some parents this will provide reassurance about their child's start in life. For others it will be a source of anxiety. But do milestones really say anything about a child's potential? For example, is an early talker more likely to be academically gifted than others? Let's take a look at the evidence.

Checking the charts

Research on developmental disorders suggests that the age at which infants hit motor or language milestones can be a "marker" of later outcome. In particular, studies have found links between early motor abilities and later language skill and social cognition in children with, and at-risk of, an autism spectrum disorder. Similarly, children with developmental coordination disorder, which affects movement and co-ordination, can be distinguished by delays in early motor skill development. Children with language disorders too can be identified by their early language skills.

In this sense, milestones have some value for identifying young children that may require follow-up care. However, whether they can say anything about the future potential of children who are developing typically is less well known.

What we do know is that new skills grow from the acquisition of foundation skills. Crawling enables a child to move independently to objects that they would like to explore, and adults increase the type of social signals they offer the crawling child. Walkers, with their new vantage point on the world, are typically more socially interactive and better at sharing objects. Therefore, it may be expected that those children that reach motor milestones at an early age will benefit from more opportunities to learn and refine new skills in the long run.

A study using a British cohort looked at the relationship between early development and cognitive skills at the age of eight. Cognitive ability was determined largely by literacy-type assessments, like reading comprehension and vocabulary, and a single measure of non-verbal IQ. While motor and language milestones were identified retrospectively by parents, meaning the accuracy may be questionable, the findings do suggest a tentative link between early and later development.

However, when "late bloomers" in motor development were excluded from the sample the mentioned effect was significantly reduced. In the remaining sample of "typical" achievers, only the measure of early speech development was associated with later cognitive skills, and the remaining relationship was significantly weaker.

When it comes to future potential for motor skills, however, there is no conclusive evidence that children who hit motor milestones early are, on average, more likely to have better motor skills than others later in life.

Nevertheless, motor skills may have an indirect effect on cognitive and later motor skills through the opportunities it gives a child to engage in and learn about the world.

When are first steps or words too late?

One thing to note when recording milestones is that children achieve basic motor milestones at a significantly different rate, as reported in a cross-cultural study by the World Health Organization. Children can begin to walk unaided any time between eight and 18 months, and still be classified within the "typical" range. In reality, rather little can be done to accelerate the time at which a child first turns over or crawls, other than providing the infant with adequate stimulation in their environment.

While parents may be concerned if their child is a "late bloomer", typically-progressing children fortunately are able to catch up. Research has demonstrated that the majority of late talkers resolve their language difficulties by school age. Also, more thorough assessments of infant vocabulary – at 18-20 months – rather than just first words have questioned the strength of the link between early talking and cognitive skills. So while there may be a relationship there, these studies have shown it is not a strong predictor for later language abilities. Of course, a very small proportion of late talkers may go on to develop language problems but a family history of language problems are a more reliable predictor of persistent difficulties.

It is inevitable that parents will compare their child's development to the norms or others, but the use of these as a window into the future remains unclear. To fully establish the role of early milestones, we would benefit from studying a large cohort of children prospectively from birth, identifying their milestones in early development and their relationship to later educational, behavioral and social outcomes.

Our current knowledge might not provide all parents with the direct reassurances that they crave. But further studies would allow more targeted guidance, support, and intervention for those children that would most benefit from immediate help that will have a lasting effect throughout their lives.

This article first appeared on The Conversation and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

03 February

Growing up, most people hear variation of the same praise for eating in the morning: a good breakfast is the foundation of a good day.

The idea is that if you're fueled up your mind will function better from the get-go and you might have a sustainable amount of mental energy built-up for the day. And parents seemingly engrain it in their children for good reason: multiple studies have found that eating a good breakfast is correlated with higher academic performance. Right?

Sort of.

The International Symposium on Breakfast and Performance held in Napa, CA in 1995 ( the first and last symposium of its kind) never fully came to this conclusion. The data suggested that skipping breakfast might interfere with learning, but the link was more pronounced in children who were already at risk of malnourishment.

But more recent studies haven't fully affirmed this. A 2012 UPenn study on about 20 elementary schoolchildren actually didn't find any correlation between decreased cognitive performance and intermittently eating breakfast. Kids in that study were "moodier" and a bit more lethargic if they skipped breakfast, but didn't do worse in school.

So if you're running late and the kids miss a few breakfasts, they've still got a shot at going to Harvard. Right?


A larger study involving 5,000 kids ages 9 to 11, conducted by the University of Cardiff in the UK, found a link between eating breakfast and greater cognitive capabilities. Kids who ate breakfast in that study did better on standardized testing and had twice the chance of above-average performance.

In terms of what to eat, that's just about the one thing most studies agree on, but far more in regards to energy levels and mood than actual cognitive performance: Don't let kids eat sugar in the morning.

So at the end of the day, there's pretty much no good reason not to try feed your kids in the morning, so long as it isn't Lucky Charms. There's never been a study that showed eating breakfast actually hurt school performance.

But what about me, the adult?

Just because breakfast helps your kids doesn't necessarily mean it'll have the same effect on your life. Eggs and oatmeal are delicious, but they won't erase your stress, awaken your inner Picasso, or even make the spreadsheets in front of you a bit less dreary.

There's far less research on the effects of eating breakfast in adults. And when there is, it tends to look at our waistlines instead of our brains.

As James Hablin pointed out in the Atlantic, breakfast is as divisive of an American issue as almost any, with people largely falling into and evangelizing for two camps: those who skip and those who don't. But the evidence on both sides is almost solely focused on waist circumference or heart-disease, and pretty rarely on healthy adult cognitive function.

The most comprehensive guide to cognition and breakfast, however, can be found in this 2013 round-up of studies from the University of Glasgow, and covers a wide variety of metabolic conditions.

For healthy adults, there seems to be one rule: stick to a routine, whether that's always eating breakfast of consistently eating none at all. The one thing that's likely to mess you up cognitively is a dramatic change to your diet, either depriving yourself of nourishment, or overdoing it.

But, doesn't mean you shouldn't experiment to find the breakfast combination that might work best for you.

Some research suggests an extremely high-fat diet that induces ketosis (when the body burns fat instead of carbohydrates for energy) can be beneficial to the brain. This is often a strong selling point for Atkins diet lovers. So, eating a high-fat breakfast (down a stick of butter, we dare you) maybe encourage fat burning and promote brain health early in the day.

But why worry about what to eat at all when you could just, well, not eat? Other research suggests skipping breakfast also seems to imitate the effects of a high-fat breakfast by extending the overnight fast. You could also try alternate-day fasting,

which, beyond potential physiological benefits, may help "mood and memory because blood sugar is stabilized and the brain fuels itself with short chain fatty acids instead of glucose." So much for being hangry because you skipped breakfast.

But if you're going to eat breakfast, where you start is another question. Eggs or oatmeal? Cheerios or fruit? Are bananas good? An apple? What about whole grain waffles? Dairy? Bacon?!

Barring weight-loss and diet concerns, it's not neuroscience. According to a roundup of a variety of studies, eggs, grains, and fruits are the way to go. They're all foods that are generally considered good for the brain and long-term energy providers, so why not?

Either that or go with the stick of butter.

So… what now?

If you haven't realized it by this point (and you're not too dizzy), here it is: Eat breakfast or not, the choice is yours. Your brain will probably be okay. Maybe more hardcore types can attempt a ketogenic diet, but good luck. Otherwise, it can't hurt to feed the kids. It'll at least make them easier for their teachers to handle.

At the end of the day, remember that there's so much advice out there that you couldn't possibly follow it all.


02 February

For some, the idea of spending time alone with their own thoughts is nightmare inducing. They would go to lengths to avoid it. And it's been proven—scientists have looked and found that many people would rather give themselves electric shocks than spend a few minutes sitting in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think.

But here's the thing. As humans, we need that time alone. It's good for our bodies and good for our brains.

I don't mean sitting there staring at a wall thinking about how everyone else is having more fun than you. I'm following the definition of psychologists worldwide, which is being away from other people, by yourself, with no one to talk to. You know, the good definition. It's that time you spend alone after work, decompressing and recharging. The time alone in the car driving home from the airport and a particularly stressful flight. The times in your house when everyone else is gone and you can crank the music up. You need it, your brain craves it.

But what does the brain do in a quiet place with nothing to do? We now know it doesn't shut off. Once you get over your impatience for getting back to the party, the brain starts a whole different pattern of activity among certain brain regions, collectively known as the default mode network.

(image)fMRI scan showing areas of the brain in the default mode network.John Graner, National Intrepid Center of Excellence, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, MD.

Many studies have examined the activity of the default mode network to understand it better, in health, as well as in disorders such as depression. Scientists have found that this network is active whenever a person is resting, daydreaming, thinking about themselves or the memories of the past, or planning for the future. In other words, even though we are not busy with any particular task but resting, our brains are constantly talking to themselves, keeping lines of communication open between areas that work together. It may be that the brain activity during this resting state is preparing us to be ready for anything so we can react in the correct manner when we leave alone time and head out into the world.

Other studies have found that letting our thoughts meander may help boost creativity, allowing for creative problem solving—even if we're alone doing a small activity to pass the time. Which, by the way, we accomplish better alone, as well. We subconsciously multitask when together with other people, but not in a way you'd think—we constantly are guessing what the other person is up to, what solution they're arriving at for a specific problem, what their thoughts and feelings are. When we're alone, our brains can relax and focus.

So, yes, alone time can be great—but when it turns into loneliness, that's a problem. Being by yourself can be completely liberating and a wonderful way to get to know you, so relish that time. Another reason to combat the loneliness and do what you can to enjoy being alone? According to a review study published last year, loneliness is linked to about 25 percent higher risk of early mortality. And that's across the board, no matter if you're male, female, European, American—loneliness kills without mercy.

Many people don't enjoy alone time because it makes them feel lonely—so, here are some tips on how to get time to yourself without feeling completely isolated.

Enjoy a private activity. Work those brain cells; read a book, write in a journal, paint, teach yourself a new skill. You'll feel stimulated and accomplished rather than bored and alone.

Break a sweat. Exercise, go hiking, just get up and dance. It increases endorphins, those little happy machines that make us feel more motivated and generally pleased with life.

Find a furry companion. Pets are the world's loneliness busters. You can talk to them, play with them, even sit and eat dinner with them if you want. You're never truly alone when a pet is around.

Get creative. Set up an entire day to do the things you loved doing when you were a kid or the things that make you feel a burst of creative expression now. You'll be able to occupy your time without thinking about being alone, and at the end of the day, you'll have a finished project you can be proud of—like the world's best macaroni picture.

Find your Zen. Meditation has been proven to increase awareness, ease anxiety, and create balance. Try it for 15 minutes and see how you feel.

Purge lingering negativity. Alone time is the perfect time to go through your life and home and get rid of everything that has a negative presence. Throw away those photos of your ex. Pack up the junk food to gift it to someone else. Use your time alone to make a good difference in your day-to-day.

Let it all hang out. Get naked. No one will know.

02 February

Coming back to work after a holiday break presents many challenges. We need to reset our circadian rhythms to get up early, remember the password on the computer, and try to focus on a task for longer than 30 seconds before another random thought pops into our heads.

Trying to focus on a task involves attention control – the ability to maintain concentration, or focus, on something over a period of time. What exactly is an attention span? Does it relate to intelligence? Can it change?

We can consider attention in two ways – in terms of space: where do you focus, what is the size of the focus, and how many objects can you process at the same time? And in terms of time – for how long can you concentrate on a task before distraction kicks in?

Sustaining attention

Sustained attention is the ability to maintain concentration on a task that is repetitive and boring. This time-based attention span can be measured in a number of different ways.

The Continuous Performance Task and the Sustained Attention to Response Task are often used to measure sustained attention. In the latter task, the participant views a series of single digits that appear on a computer screen, each for a very short period of time. In the most boring version of the task, the digits run in a set sequence of 1 to 9, and this sequence is repeated many times.

The participant is asked to press a key when any digit except "3" shows up on the screen. This task runs for just over five minutes and many children and adults will press a key after seeing the "3" at least a few times. Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) will press after the 3 many more times, on average. Performance improves with the administration of ADHD medication Ritalin.

You might wonder how long the average person is able to do a task before their attention wanes. This depends on the nature of the task and the nature of the individual. If the task is engaging and arousing to the person, then this will lead to better performance on the task.

Many children with ADHD can play computer games for long periods of time, but struggle with the Sustained Attention to Response Task. Our brains are set up to respond quickly and automatically to stimulation from the environment, such as an alarm going off. It takes mental effort to direct attention from within oneself.

Can you change your attention span?

There is an association between being able to maintain attention to a task very well and having a higher estimated intelligence level. But, there's a problem: in order to measure intelligence, one must maintain attention to the intelligence task.

Your sustained attention performance can change. Your current mental state will have an influence on sustained attention performance. For instance, if you reflect on a time when you failed, you are more likely to perform well and show perseverance on a sustained attention task compared with when you have reflected on a time when you achieved success.

If you are highly anxious, this will have a negative impact on your sustained attention performance. Your current physical state will also have an influence on your attention control. For instance, better sustained attention performance is associated with increased aerobic fitness. Taking either caffeine or theanine, which are both found in tea, significantly improves sustained attention performance.

Sustained attention ability varies over age. A study of 10,430 participants found the ability to consistently respond and correctly detect targets within a task peaks in people aged in their early 40s and is followed by a gradual decline in older adults. Nevertheless, the strategy of responding – how careful one is in detecting the target – improves from 15 years onwards and does not decline with age.

What attention span tells us

This ability to concentrate on a task for a period of time is a very important skill for children to develop. In one study a questionnaire-based measure of attention-span persistence was taken when a large cohort of children was aged four.

Parents answered questions such as: "My child plays with a single toy for long periods of time", or "My child goes from toy to toy quickly". The parents responded with a rating of 1 "not at all like my child" up to 5 "a lot like my child". An estimate of the child's attention span on a scale of 1 to 5 was then generated from the average of the answers.

Researchers then followed up when the children had become young adults. Attention span-persistence at age four predicted how well each person performed in maths and reading at age 21, and predicted the odds of the person completing college by 25.

So sustained attention underpins control over behavior and emotions and subsequent academic success.

This article first appeared on The Conversation and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

01 February

I've always been jealous of those people who can powernap. A lot of research suggests that sleep helps solidify what we've just recently learned, and even a short nap can plump up our memories. But being able to fall asleep in the middle of the workday seems to a special skill possessed by only a few. For many others, it's easier to just spend the allotted time daydreaming or thinking about all the chores that need to get done.

But there might be hope for those of us who never got the hang of napping. In a recent experiment, relaxing quietly for 15 minutes gave people an edge in remembering a short story they'd heard earlier. And while resting, the participants had brain activity similar to what's seen during nighttime memory consolidation, scientists reported January 21 in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. The findings suggest that even a short rest without actually sleeping could help boost memory.

Over decades of investigating the link between sleep and memory, scientists have discovered that as we sleep our brains pore over new memories, sending them from the hippocampus to the cortex for long-term storage. Our brains also fortify memories by creating new connections between neurons or strengthening existing ones during sleep. Some studies have found that a few hours or a quick nap can be as effective as nighttime sleep, and one study has reported memory gains after a mere six-minute powernap.

In the new experiment, researchers at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. investigated whether people would see the same benefits following a short respite or a distracting game. The researchers played recordings of a short story to 26 undergraduates. The students then had to type out whatever they could remember. When they'd finished sharing their recollections, some of the students took a break, resting in a comfy chair with their eyes closed. The others spent that time playing the puzzle game Snood. After 15 minutes had passed, the students shared whatever they still remembered of the tale they'd heard earlier. They also filled out a questionnaire about what had occupied their minds during the 15 minutes periods of gaming or rest.

The participants then swapped, listening to another short story and reporting their memories after either playing Snood or enjoying some downtime. While the students relaxed or played, the researchers measured their brains' electrical activity with EEG.

As the researchers suspected, people remembered the stories they'd heard better after an interlude of quiet rest than game playing. With these gains came a particular signature on the brain scans: slow-moving waves of electricity that scientists have linked with memory processing during sleep. This indicates that we might not need to lose consciousness for these waves to begin rippling through our brains.

A wandering mind also seemed to boost the students' memories. While playing Snood, people spent more time considering the task at hand than they did during the quiet break. But the students who did manage to spare some mental bandwidth for meditation or pondering the past or future retained more of the story they'd heard than those who were preoccupied with the game.

Strangely, reflecting on the story itself didn't make a person more likely to recall it, even when they had plenty of time to mull the tale over while resting. This suggests that something about rest itself is beneficial for memory; it's not just an opportunity to dwell on what we've learned.

To find out how far the memory boost seen here extends, scientists will need to conduct studies with more people over a longer period of time and test out different kinds of memory. It's also not clear yet whether a waking rest strengthens memories in the same way that sleep does.

But the researchers have an idea about how it might happen. While asleep or resting, we become less aware of the world around us. This pause from taking in new information could give our brains the chance to consolidate memories. When we start to let our mind wander, this might signal that we've disengaged from the outside world enough for this to happen.

"Quiet rest was not associated with a lack of mental activity," the authors noted. "Participants experienced rich and varied mental activity during the rest period, which differed from the distractor task primarily in that this mentation was inwardly focused."

So if you can't clear your mind or fall asleep at the drop of a hat, don't worry. You might still be able to reinforce your memories, so long as you can find a quiet spot to shut your eyes and chill for a few minutes.

01 February

"For me, it's like looking at the world through a curtain of transparent static. Like the signal isn't coming in great on an old bunny-eared TV"—this is how one Reddit user describes his experience with "visual snow" syndrome.

Just like many other people with this syndrome, who see snow or TV-like static across their visual fields, the Reddit user reports that his symptoms get worse with less ambient light. He also notes they increase whenever he gets migraines—which have previously been associated with the syndrome. "During these auras, lights may jump around and blink, I'll see spots of red and blue pixels, etc.," he says.

Visual snow is a chronic condition, with many people reporting that their symptoms persist at all times, even when their eyes are closed. The syndrome is also frequently accompanied by other visual phenomena such as the persistence of previously viewed images, a condition known as palinopsia, or the presence of perceived flashes of light as well as non-visual symptoms such as tinnitus (ringing in the ears).

The severity of symptoms varies from patient to patient. "Most patients can cope with visual snow in daily life, it is annoying however," said Clare L. Fraser, of the University of Sydney, who has treated patients with the syndrome. "Some patients find doing any reading or studying nearly impossible as the 'snow' obscures what they are trying to read, so some patients have dropped out of university. I have other patients who made it through law school, and with some simple adjustments, have coped really well."

Fraser and her colleagues have now looked at the characteristics and potential treatment for the syndrome in a new study of 32 patients, published in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience. The researchers found that the classic symptom of seeing fine, predominantly black and white static was reported in 91 percent of patients, while the remaining patients reported seeing fine chromatic static. The majority of the patients also experienced more than one additional visual phenomenon such as persistent after-images or stars bursts and colored blobs. In addition, the researchers found that 63 percent of the patients experienced high-pitched tinnitus, 44 percent experienced migraine with or without aura, and some also had tremor and balance problems.


Most patients (65 percent) pointed to factors that aggravated their symptoms, such as high contrast text on a computer screen, darkness, exhaustion and stress. Thirty five percent of the patients said that altering the ambient light helped them alleviate their symptoms, but many—57 percent—were not able to point to any strategies that could help them cope.

The researchers also tested the use of tinted lenses as a potential way to decrease the severity of symptoms in 12 of the patients. "This was the first study to report the use of tinted lenses as a potential mechanism to make the symptoms more tolerable," Fraser told Braindecoder. "Colored lenses have been used by other doctors for this condition, but it seemed that no one has studied the effect and mechanism in detail before." The researchers found the use of the lenses seemed to provide some relief to most of the patients in the small sample, particularly when they used lenses in the yellow-blue color spectrum.

The mechanisms behind visual snow are still unclear. Though its occurrence has been linked with stress, depression, migraines and previous use of hallucinogenic drugs, "no clear causative agent has been identified," the researchers said. In fact, scientists have recently suggested that visual snow syndrome is a unique clinical phenomenon that is distinct from migraine.

Overall, the thinking about possible mechanisms behind the syndrome is now shifting, noted Fraser. The results of the new study, for example, suggest that visual snow may be caused by an imbalance in inputs from two major visual pathways that receive input for color and motion, Fraser said. Such an imbalance is what neuroscientists call thalamocortical dysrhythmia, meaning the normal neural activity between the thalamus and various regions of the cortex is disrupted.

Colored tinted lenses such as the ones used in the new study "will be affecting the relative visual inputs along these two pathways by adjusting the color perception," she said. And the fact that certain colored lenses seem to alleviate the symptoms "points us to the hypothesis that visual syndrome is part of the thalamo-cortical dysrhythmias [and that] there is an imbalance in these inputs driving the condition, which is altered by wearing the lenses," Fraser said.

28 January

Most people who get Lyme disease are clued in by a rash in the shape of a bull's-eye or flulike symptoms. But last year, a man in Germany was diagnosed with Lyme disease after he experienced one of the rarest associated maladies: a stroke resulting in lingering memory loss.

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted by tick bites. In North America, only one species of bacteria causes the disease, but five different Lyme-causing bacteria can be found in Europe and Asia. Symptoms can include a rash, headaches, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes or neurological problems.

Lyme disease can also cause strokes, perhaps by inflaming blood vessels in the brain. Fortunately, it's extremely rare for this to happen, said John Halperin a neurologist at the Atlantic Neuroscience Institute at Overlook Medical Center in Summit, N.J. "There may be about a dozen cases total that are pretty convincing."

These incidents tend to happen in Europe, where the temperate, moist climate is ideal for ticks and there are two to four times as many cases of Lyme disease, Halperin said.

The man in Germany, a previously healthy 43-year-old, showed up at the hospital after two weeks of feeling ill and suffering headaches and short-term memory loss. He told doctors that he'd bitten by a tick four months earlier while on holiday in the Netherlands. When the doctors examined him, they discovered that he also had slow movements and weakness on the left side of his body, and fell asleep during the interview.

When the doctors looked more closely at the man's central nervous system, they discovered signs of a stroke and Lyme disease. An MRI scan revealed several abnormalities including a patch of dead tissue in the man's thalamus, indicating that a stroke had cut off the blood supply to this part of the brain. After sampling his cerebrospinal fluid, the doctors also found antibodies against the Lyme-causing bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi and several compounds associated with these bacteria.

After a course of antibiotics, the man's motor problems and left-sided weakness eased. But his memory impairment did not seem to get better. At a follow-up visit two months later, the man still had mild short-term memory loss.

"Infection with Borrelia burgdorferi should be considered in stroke patients without obvious risk factors…in order to establish the diagnosis and start an efficient antibiotic therapy before irreversible complications may occur," wrote the doctors, who published the account recently in the journal Case Reports in Neurological Medicine.

Halperin is less certain. Stroke and, in many regions, Lyme disease are common afflictions. Both could befall a person without being connected.

"People have done studies where they've done Lyme titers [screening tests] on hundreds of consecutive stroke patients and they did not find that there were cases popping up that were due to Lyme," Halperin said. "If you were to take 1,000 patients with stroke and get Lyme tests on every one of them, you'd be far more likely to get a false positive that would mislead you than you would be to find a patient with a Lyme-related stroke."

So even if you have Lyme disease, it's vanishingly unlikely to give you a stroke. And it's even less likely that that's how the disease would first announce its presence. "Generally Lyme has symptoms long before it does this sort of thing," Halperin said.

The link between these two afflictions remains mysterious, leaving doctors to extrapolate from what they know about related conditions. The bacteria that cause Lyme disease are cousins of another infamous cohort: the corkscrew-shaped Treponema pallidum, which causes syphilis.

When syphilis attacks the central nervous system, the walls of blood vessels can become inflamed, leading to blockage in an artery supplying part of the brain. "The theory has always been that maybe Lyme does the same thing," Halperin said. "The problem is there's really no evidence."

Doctors learned how syphilis causes strokes by doing autopsies on people who died before antibiotics became a reliable cure. People today are more likely to survive their illnesses, so doctors haven't done the same thing with Lyme disease. Instead, they use imaging techniques to observe the arteries indirectly.

"There is a small handful of cases from Europe where I think the argument is pretty compelling that they're related," Halperin said. "But we don't really know how we got from point A to point B."

28 January

Our minds are not entirely under our control. Fyodor Dostoevsky noted as much in 1863, when he penned his famous white bear observation. "Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute."

Over a century later, social psychologist Daniel Wegner scientifically verified Dostoevsky's claim. Volunteers asked to suppress thoughts of a white bear utterly failed at that task. In a second step, Wegner asked the volunteers to actively think of the bear. He found that original thought suppression group was now able to spend significantly more time picturing the animal than subjects who were asked to think about it from the beginning. Thought suppression, Wegner hypothesized, seems to produce "the very obsession or preoccupation that it is directed against."

While bears on the brain may be a somewhat innocuous preoccupation, Wegner noted that the same backfiring effect often plays out when trying not to ruminate on painful or distressing topics. He explained this phenomenon through the lens of "ironic processes": when trying to suppress a thought, our mind repeatedly checks back in on the thought to make sure we are indeed suppressing it, thus making us think of it more.

In addition, trying hard to control your mind—whether to suppress something or perform a mentally demanding task—requires resources, of which we have a finite amount. "When you try hard to control your mind, your mental resources will inevitably run out and you can no longer maintain the controlling process," says Yunn-Wen Lien, a psychologist at the National Taiwan University. "Both mind wandering and thought suppression failure can be seen as a failure of mental control."

Since Wegner's original discovery, Lien and others have invested effort into finding methods to prevent such failures. Lien's most recent investigation compared the effectiveness of two strategies that seek to suppress thoughts by redirecting attention to either breathing or a mental image. Both were first proposed by Wegner in 2011 as a possible way to "set free the bears," but their effectiveness has never been compared.

In a new study, Lien and her colleague Yu-Jeng Ju divided 82 undergraduates into two groups. One group received training in how to focus on their breath while the other was instructed to direct their attention on the mental image of a blue sports car.

Then, the researchers asked the students to think solely of either the car or their breathing for three minutes, and to push a button each time their mind began to wander. In a second task, the volunteers watched a short video depicting polar bears at play, and then were asked to suppress thoughts about white bears for five minutes by focusing on breathing or the blue car. Again, each time the white bear popped into their minds, they pushed a button. Finally, the researchers also measured the students' working memory—an index of mental capacity—by asking them to remember a series of letters while calculating simple math equations.

As the researchers reported in Consciousness and Cognition, mind wandering and intrusion of unwanted thoughts correlated positively with each other, regardless of which control strategy was used. The more prone a student was to unwanted thoughts, the more likely she was to have high rates of mind wandering.

The researchers also found that focusing on breath rather than on a mental image was a more effective strategy for both reducing unwanted thoughts and cutting back on mind wandering. This might be because focusing on breath requires less energy than focusing on an imaginary image. A third discovery backed this theory up: the effectiveness of the blue car distractor depended on the participant's working memory capacity, while the breathing strategy worked well across the board. "Focused-breathing strategy is effective regardless of users' mental capacities, while focused-distraction strategy only worked for those with high mental capacities," Lien says. This means that the two strategies might operate through different pathways in our brain, she says, although that hypothesis will require further investigation.

This also means that focus on breath might be a particularly useful strategy for those who suffer from depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, since those conditions can erode a person's capacity for mental control. The strategy can be easily applied at home, Lien says, although practice would be required for learning to maintain it for longer than a few minutes, or for combatting especially disturbing subjects.

Breathing is not the only way to suppress unwanted thoughts, however. Other studies suggest distracting activities such as gardening, exercising, arts or handicrafts can produce positive results. Some therapists find that postponing the unwanted thought—allocating 30 minutes to mentally dealing with it later that day or week—can help, too.

Meditation can also increase a person's mental capacity, improving their ability to control thoughts by creating a more stable activity pattern in the default mode network, a set of brain regions active during wakeful rest, and, on the long term, improving self-regulation. "In Taiwan we have a variety of traditional mind-body enhancing practices, in which one's attention is directed to his or her body and the mind is kept 'empty' or 'tranquil,'" Lien says. "Analogously, it allows you to 'reset' your mind, just like you reboot your computer."

26 January

After a busy and stressful year, I recently found myself physically and mentally exhausted with a very real need to relax. A last-minute holiday felt like a perfect solution and I returned feeling refreshed and recharged. What was it that helped me to relieve my physical tension and restore my inner calm? Was it exploring somewhere new, swimming in the sea, spending time with family – or just lying on the beach, touching the sand and completely switching off?

As a clinical psychologist, cognitive neuroscientist and mindfulness teacher, I am fascinated by how our thoughts and emotions relate to our physical responses. They are a key to understanding our ability to tolerate and respond to stress. Scientific research has highlighted a range of ways our individual perception and experience of stress vary. For example, the amounts of certain chemicals in our bodies that affect how we feel, such as cortisol and oxytocin, can be negatively affected by a lack of attachment, social support and even how confident we are that we can control our situation.

Responding to stress

Modern working patterns, and in particular our use of technology such as smartphones, make it harder to establish clear boundaries between our work and personal lives. We are constantly bombarded with sensory information and exposed to global events in an instant. When coupled with greater demands on our time and less time for ourselves, this gradually can lead to stress or burnout.

Our ability to respond to stress is essential for our survival. Our sympathetic nervous system is responsible for activating our fight, flight or freeze responses. Our bodies quickly restore balance when stress is short-lived, but more persistent stress is much harder to manage. Our long-term physiological responses are regulated by specialized brain systems that release hormones when our highly evolved frontal cortex perceives stress.

The development of humans' frontal cortex has provided us with a greater capacity to contemplate, make decisions and plan ahead. But it is also responsible for generating even more stress. Our unique ability to mentally "time travel", to remember the past and imagine the future, can also mean that we spend too much time ruminating on things that have happened, leading to low mood, and worrying about things that have yet to happen, leading to anxiety.

Ultimately, this can take its toll on our physiology and disrupt cortisol regulation. This leads to fatigue, reduced immune function and changes in brain structures, including connections associated with learning, memory and emotional processing.

Given the problems this can cause, our ability to relax and effectively manage stress is essential for our physical and mental well-being. Interestingly, our choices and the activities that can help us relax and manage stress can vary hugely from person to person. My own response tends to be grounded in my belief in science, my personal mindfulness practice and my love of dance, which I find gives me greater awareness of my body and mind and helps reconnect me with nature and loved ones.

Immerse yourself

Mindfulness meditation is a way of encouraging you to be aware of your internal and external experience – your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations, including breathing – that can quieten the mind and relieve tension. Focusing on and accepting these experiences can improve the flexibility and control of your attention and reduce distress and discomfort. Recent studies have shown that mindfulness interventions, delivered by trained instructors who are aware of all of the psychological effects, are powerful techniques that increase brain connectivity and activation, and thickness in the frontal cortex. This especially is the case in the brain areas that regulate emotion, pain, attention, stress and well-being.

But other people may find physical or creative activities just as relaxing. Creative and physical activities including art, music, sports, dance and yoga can have beneficial effects on immune function, blood pressure, heart rate, cognitive function and well-being. This may again be due to the way these activities refocus your attention and can create a sense of flow when you are fully immersed in them. Our levels of oxytocin also can increase with greater social connection, easily recognized when we are with our friends, family and even even pets.

There are also physical techniques that have been specifically designed to promote relaxation, which can be useful for those who find it difficult to relax without guidance. Progressive muscle relaxation involves systematically contracting and then releasing different muscle groups and noticing sensation. It has proved very effective in reducing physical tension and relieving stress. Some therapists also use guided imagery to encourage people to imagine that their muscles have become heavy or warm in a similar way.

Biofeedback techniques provide people with a visual representation on a computer screen of how their heart rate, blood pressure or brain waves change. This can be incredibly useful in helping children and those with attention difficulties to focus and combat stress, as visual cues can provide motivation and encourage self-monitoring.

Given the complex links between our environment, minds, brains and bodies, it is not surprising that relaxation can be challenging, elusive and at times neglected. Yet simply allowing ourselves time to focus on our breathing, a feature that is common to most relaxation techniques, can improve cardiovascular and brain functions and reduce stress. Each requires elements of attentional control, curiosity, connection and body awareness. Our personal preferences for unique combinations and timings of these elements are essential. This may explain why my holiday in the sun was so effective.

This article was written by Trudi Edginton, a clinical psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Westminster. It first appeared on The Conversation and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

26 January

As the saying goes, you are what you eat. But could the same be said for microbes in the food that you eat? Are there "good" bacteria or pathogens that can change the way your brain works, for good or ill?

The answer to all of these questions appears to be yes.

As for the subtle effects of bacteria, much of this is still unknown, although there is a growing field of research to understand this. Microbes play a vital role in regulating the body's endocrine system, and may affect the brain by influencing various neurotransmitters, many of which are primarily located in the guts; for example, some 90 percent of our serotonin and about half of the dopamine are produced in the gastrointestinal tract. Moreover, studies have found links between gastrointestinal problems and psychiatric conditions such as anxiety, depression and autism, suggesting that, through various little-understood mechanisms, the brain and the gut are tightly connected.

But can viruses, fungi, good or bad bacteria, and other foreign organisms physically make their way from the gut to the brain? Normally the brain is protected from pathogens by the blood-brain barrier. This lining keeps out most large molecules and microbes, letting in a select number of substances like glucose and amino acids, which the brain needs in large quantities to function.

However, a few pathogens have found a way around this pathway, some of which enter the body through the intestines. (Although most of the more well-known diseases that can directly affect the brain, such as rabies, syphilis and most types of meningitis, are not acquired through food).

Prion diseases

Let's start with one of the more rare but terrible types of pathogens that can execute this trick. Prions are small proteins that are normally harmless, but which can become "misfolded," and able to convert other proteins into a pathological misfolded shape. Like viruses, they aren't generally considered "alive," but replicate using a host. There are several types of disease caused by prions, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. In this condition, prions accumulate in the brain and cause damage and death to cells, forming small holes and making the brain appear like a sponge (hence the name for these types of prion diseases, known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies).

It's unclear what causes most cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease—some cases are acquired "spontaneously," when some of a person's normal prions suddenly misfold and change into the infectious prions. A smaller proportion of cases, about 5 to 10 percent, are inherited. But a small subset of cases are caused by consuming pathogenic prions. One variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, called vCJD, can be transmitted by consuming beef from cattle infected by bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as Mad cow disease. About 180 cases of vCJD were reported in the United Kingdom between 1996 and 2011, and there have been about 50 cases reported elsewhere, including three in the United States. The disease peaked in 2000 with 28 deaths, but since 2008 there have only been on average two cases and two deaths reported per year, according to the World Health Organization.

Around 1900 in Papua New Guinea, It's believed that a single individual spontaneously developed a disease similar to CJD. Normally this would not be notable. But this individual happened to live among the Fore people, who had a habit of eating the bodies of those who had died. Some of the people who ate this individual's brains developed the disease, often decades later, a condition characterized in part by uncontrollable shaking; it got its name, kuru, from the Fore word meaning "to shake from fear." This cannibalistic practice was eventually abandoned in the 1960s. However, the disease has an incredibly long incubation period, and the last sufferer of kuru died in 2005.

Research in mice suggests that prions accumulate and reproduce in immune cells within lymph nodes, spreading from one node to another to get closer to the brain. Mice that lack a certain type of cell called B cells, which the prions parasitize in order to reproduce and spread, are resistant to a prion disease called scrapie, for example. Eventually, the prions make their way into the brain by traveling up nerve fibers, although exactly how they do this is not precisely known. It has been shown that some mice who were inoculated with the prion disease scrapie, but then had the sympathetic nerves connected to their brains severed, didn't get the prion in their brains. Other mice inoculated in the same way did get the pathogen in their brains, showing it uses these nerves as a transmission route.

Prions are quite difficult to get rid of; high heat alone doesn't usually do the trick, so even proper cooking of contaminated meat wouldn't make it safe to eat.

Toxoplasma gondii

While prion disease are rare, exposure to Toxoplasma gondii, protozoan parasite that reproduces in cats, is not. You can get infected by the parasite by ingesting food contaminated by cat feces or litter, from undercooked meat like pork, or from contaminated soil (say on unwashed vegetables). Most of the time, people with healthy immune systems will not develop any symptoms. However, pregnant women are advised not to have any contact with cat litter because if they become infected during pregnancy, the parasite can infect the fetus, potentially causing problems such as blindness or mental disability. The fetus is normally "protected" from many pathogens, but the mobile form the parasite takes on (known as the tachyzoite phase) can reach the fetus and use its small size to get through the typically-firewalled retina and brain.

Although the immune system of healthy people promptly kills the invading parasite, the protozoan reaches places throughout the body and later goes into a latent form creating cysts in the brain, as well as the heart and other muscles. The cysts may remain there permanently, perhaps becoming active if the immune system becomes compromised during a disease such as HIV/AIDS, or temporary shut down during organ transplantation. The tachyzoites can invade various brain cells such as astrocytes, microglia and neurons, but in humans predominate in neurons within the hippocampus, basal ganglia, and amygdala.

Whipple Disease

Whipple disease is a rare condition caused by a bacterium called Tropheryma whipplei, which is present in the soil. It only affects fewer than one in a million people, and primarily impacts the small intestines, where it can cause sores and damage to tissues, leading to diarrhea and difficulty absorbing nutrients. If left untreated, however, the bacteria can eventually make their way into the brain, which can cause symptoms such vision and memory problems, personality changes, facial numbness, headaches, muscular twitching and loss of hearing, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Listeria monocytogenes

A common cause of bacterial meningitis in newborns and older adults is Listeria monocytogenes, which transmits through contaminated food like lunch meats, unpasteurized cheeses and hot dogs. This bacteria leads to meningitis, which, early on, mimic the symptoms of the flu, but progress to more severe problems like a severe headache, high fever, stiff neck, and even seizures.


Brucellosis is a bacterial disease in humans that is uncommon in the United States, affecting little over 100 people per year. However, it is more common in developing countries, and is spread through undercooked meat or raw, unpasteurized milk (so seriously, don't eat unpasteurized dairy products). Rarely, brucellosis can spread to the brain, causing severe headache and fever, and other symptoms of meningitis. One study of 18 people with the condition found that it caused several serious secondary symptoms such as impaired speaking, hearing loss, or weakness on one side of the body.

Cysticercosis, a.k.a. pork tapeworm

Finally, there is the pork tapeworm, also known as Taenia solium, which normally lives in the muscles of a pig. If all goes well for this vile little parasite, the pig dies and then gets eaten by a human (yum, bacon!). Of course the pork has to be improperly cooked for this to occur. But assuming this does happen, the tapeworm makes its way to the human's intestines, where it lays eggs—tons and tons of them. One adult tapeworm can produce 50,000 eggs over its lifetime, a disgusting little parasite factory, shedding the eggs in the person's feces.

To complete the parasite's life cycle, the eggs must then must be eaten by a pig, hatching in the animal's intestines and burrowing into its muscles. But, sometimes, these eggs are eaten by humans, in contaminated food or water. That's when the real trouble begins. These eggs can hatch in the human intestines and make their way into the muscles or even the human brain, a condition called neurocysticercosis. (That's in contrast to the adult tapeworms, which happily inhabit the human intestines.) Once in the brain, the parasite cozies up to form a cyst, blocking itself off from the immune system, and feeding on neural cells and fluids. There it can live for years, sometimes without detection. However, if it pushes against critical portions of the brain, it can cause seizures, even comas and death. Theodore Nash, a physician at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, estimates that about 1,500 to 2,000 people in the United States have this condition. Nash has removed the cysts from the brains of several people, while also treating them with antiparasitic drugs, and some have made full recoveries after neurocysticercosis.

Now that you are thoroughly grossed out, we'll end it there. The route from the gut to the brain may be a winding one pursued by only a few pathogens, but it's not an impossible journey. Be careful what you eat!

20 January

Think back to your middle school or early teenage years. You might have been worried about your grades, or how you came across to everyone else, or why you were suddenly sprouting body hair all over the place, or how incredibly annoying your parents suddenly seemed. Whatever was on your mind, there's a good chance you don't recall those years as among your favorites.

You're not the only one who isn't thrilled with the adolescent experience, psychologists are finding. And if you happen to now be a mother with kids approaching middle school, your happiness might be about to dip again.

In fact, how well-adjusted moms are can depend a lot on what developmental stage their kids are going through, psychologists at Arizona State University in Tempe report in a new study. In a survey of many aspects of wellbeing and satisfaction, moms with kids in middle school faced drops in many areas, while those with adult children and infants fared the best.

"The literature on parenting is rife with studies of how mothers affect their children, yet there is little systematic effort to understand factors associated with mothers' own distress or well-being, and how this might vary from their children's birth through adulthood," wrote the researchers, who published the findings this month in the journal Developmental Psychology. "We hope that this initial exploration…will spark further research on mothers as people, and not just as caregivers."

The team took a survey of more than 2,200 mothers, asking about different aspects of wellbeing, parenting, and perception of their offspring (like children's views of their parents, how mothers see their kids can fluctuate over time). Then the researchers examined how the average scores rose or dipped depending on whether the moms' charges were going through infancy, preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school or adulthood.

To get a picture of the mothers' wellbeing, the researchers included questions designed to measure anxiety, depression, stress, loneliness, satisfaction with life and feelings of emptiness and of fulfillment. The moms also reported on how satisfied and guilty they felt with their parenting, how overloaded they felt and how they interacted with their kids.

Middle school: fun for nobody

The researchers had a suspicion that things might be rockiest for the moms of middle school kids, since that is when kids start to contend with puberty and forge their own identities. "In parallel with their children's significant stressors, mothers of middle schoolers themselves confront several new developmental challenges," wrote the researchers. Many are baffled by how rapidly their kids' personas are morphing, hurt by what seems like rebelliousness or moodiness and worried that their children will experiment with drugs or take other risks.

As expected, the researchers found that middle school represented a low point for moms, with peak scores of emptiness and fraught interactions with kids, and ebbing in scores of life and parenting satisfaction.

These scores don't mean that the moms were miserable, though. The middle school moms' scores weren't drastically different in most areas from those of moms with elementary or high school aged children. "Our data simply reflect gradual but consistent increases in maternal distress that peak when children are in middle school, just as well-being indices reach their lowest point at that period," the researchers wrote.

Some of mothers' distress as their kids navigate middle school may stem from picking up on their children's unhappiness and worrying about how best to shield and support them.

Another source of distress may be aging — many women hit middle age as their kids hit middle school. During this time, people realize that they have started aging and many also have the least satisfaction and most strife in their marriages. So women have plenty of their own issues to deal with while their kids are in middle school, which could also impact their wellbeing scores.

What infants and grown-up children have in common

The researchers also speculated that, in general, moms of infants would be hitting a rough patch. Babies are a lot of work, and new parents can struggle with balancing childcare with the demands of their jobs and feeling like their own freedom has been curtailed. Studies have also found that many people's romantic relationships suffer a bit in the first several years of parenthood.

But in fact, women with infants did not report lower wellbeing and actually had higher life satisfaction on average than others. They were more overloaded than those with teens on average, but also felt more satisfied with their parenting.

"Children's infancy may in fact be trying for mothers in some respects, but rewarding in others," the researchers pointed out.

One group that the researchers did expect to be under less strain were mothers whose children had grown up. Sure enough, mothers of adult children felt significantly less overloaded and clashed with their children less than all other groups. And compared with the middle school mothers, those with grown children did significantly better in terms of stress, loneliness and satisfaction and guilt about their parenting, and had more positive perceptions of their kids.

"Our findings support suggestions that the 'empty nest' syndrome is largely a myth," the researchers wrote. "At the same time, extant evidence indicates that when adult children do return home…their co-residence is not associated with decreased parental well-being."

Down and up again

Overall, the findings indicate that the challenges of motherhood increase steadily as their offspring move out of babyhood but ease when the kids reach adulthood. Scores of mothers' wellbeing changed in a rough V-shape across children's age groups, with middle school the nadir in many ways.

These effects were more noticeable among mothers who had kids in only one age group than among those who had children of various ages. Kids' genders had little effect on their mothers' scores.

The experiences of women surveyed in this study may not represent those of all mothers. These moms were all American, and most were highly educated; 85 percent had college degrees and nearly half had graduate degrees.

The opportunity to obtain higher education is more common in affluent communities. One way this could have impacted scores is that moms with infants in this study may have been more likely to have the financial means to stay home with their kids or send their kids to daycare. "Thus, the birth of a child may in fact be among the most stressful developmental periods for mothers in general, but is less so—at least as compared to their children's early adolescence—among relatively affluent mothers," the researchers wrote.

Whether or not the V-shaped curve is typical across different groups of mothers, it still can't predict an individual woman's wellbeing or experience as a parent. But the researchers think that knowing what trends are common might still be helpful for many mothers.

"Research-based knowledge could help women to prepare for forthcoming stressors," the researchers wrote. And an "equally useful message to disseminate would be that things will probably get a great deal easier with time."

05 January

When the wife of an older pastor in North Carolina first noticed he had recently become excessively pious, she didn't think twice about it — after all, being serious about religion was part of his job. But, over time, the pastor's religious obsessions grew even more, and so did her worries.

The pastor used to be willing to discuss certain biblical passages that were commonly viewed as ambiguous by the Christian community. Now, he adamantly insisted that only his own interpretations of them were right. Even talking about them was enough to quickly make him agitated. The pastor's gradual turn of character was reflected also in his career: during the past 10 years, he had been moved to pastor smaller and smaller congregations because of his difficulties managing them and his significant increase in piety.

The pastor's wife began to fear his behavior would continue to worsen, so she finally asked her 60-year-old husband to see a doctor. Upon examination, it turned out that the man's hyper-religiosity was actually a symptom of frontotemporal dementia, his doctors reported recently in the Clinical Neuropsychologist.

Frontotemporal dementia is a condition in which a loss of cells in certain parts of the brain eventually leads to behavioral and personality changes. Unlike other forms of dementia—like Alzheimer's and Parkinson disease—that strike more commonly in older ages, frontotemporal dementia tends to affect people in their 40s to early 60s.

"For reasons that are not entirely clear, the damage in the brain affects regions of the frontal and temporal lobes more severely in the early stages of the disease," Dr. Brendan Kelley, a cognitive neurologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, who was not involved in the report of the man's case, told Braindecoder. "This often results in problems with logical reasoning, language and many patients exhibit major changes in behavior and interpersonal interactions."

The man's doctors first conducted multiple tests to see whether his symptoms could be attributed to a psychiatric condition or dementia from degeneration of cells, finding the latter was the case. The results of an MRI revealed shrinkage of brain tissue, or atrophy, in the right side of the brain, mostly pronounced in the temporal lobe.

Interestingly, hyper-religiosity has been previously seen in some people with temporal lobe epilepsy — a neurological condition in which a person experiences seizures that originate in the temporal lobe. In these cases hyper-religiosity may occur along with a number of other the behavioral phenomena collectively known under the term of Geschwind syndrome.

"Neuroanatomical studies have identified that the main areas involved in hyper-religiosity appear to be the frontal lobes, the temporal lobes, and the limbic system," Kelley said.

Previous research has also shown that some patients with a stroke in the right temporal lobe may show hyper-religiosity and other symptoms of Geschwind syndrome. The new report adds to the existing evidence suggesting that structures in the brain's right hemisphere, particularly in the right temporal and right frontal lobes, "are implicated in the manifestation of hyper-religiosity," Kelley said.

The pastor's wife told his doctors that his behavior had also changed in other ways over the years. For instance, he had become aggressive towards her. He also became socially disinhibited: he would approach strangers and divulge personal information about the couple's finances, intimate details about their family and his own health. The tests conducted at the doctor's office confirmed these personality changes, and also showed the man was depressed, apathetic and had obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

In addition, the wife told the doctors she noticed the man's memory for names and faces had recently worsened. And, indeed, during the examination it turned out the man was not able to identify the names and faces of celebrities that were presented to him, and he could only recognize the portraits of six out of 12 of the most recent presidents. These symptoms resembled the symptoms of a condition called prosopagnosia, in which people have trouble recognizing familiar faces.

The man also showed poor verbal memory and wasn't able to recognize other people's facial emotions. Moreover, his executive functions seemed to be diminished, as he had problems with planning, organization and mental flexibility.

People with frontotemporal dementia can have different patterns of brain damage, and therefore different behavioral symptoms. In some people, the loss of brain tissue occurs mostly on the left side of the brain and affects speech. In others, the disease primarily targets the frontal areas of the brain and results in behavioral changes.

The man's doctors who described his case concluded that his case provides support for the existence of another variant of frontotemporal dementia, in which the right temporal lobe is particularly affected. "Continued investigation of case studies, such as the present one, can offer a potential exemplary for the study of clinical symptoms in patients with asymmetrical temporal lobe dysfunction," they wrote in the report.

08 December 2015

It might seem strange that when chronic drinkers pull back from alcohol, the withdrawal they endure can be more dangerous than what people go through when they try to quit cocaine. After all, alcohol is a commonly consumed, legal substance while cocaine is…well, cocaine.

But the characteristics of small alcohol molecules make them insidious, allowing them to permeate the brain and affect every cell. When people become dependent on alcohol, it causes long-term changes in the brain's balance of chemical messengers that can spark miseries ranging from anxiety and the shakes to seizures and death.

The ordeal of withdrawal is different for every substance. Some forms of withdrawal, like those associated with nicotine or cocaine, are unpleasant but unlikely to kill a person. But, as with heroin, detoxing from alcohol can be fatal.

"People think that withdrawal from any drug it is just withdrawal, and that's not the truth," said Lorenzo Leggio, an internist at National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "People do not die because of tobacco withdrawal."

Not everyone who stops drinking goes through withdrawal; scientists aren't sure why this is. Fortunately, the tumult happening in the brain during detox—and how to treat it—is better understood.

What happens during withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal includes symptoms that can affect both the mind and body when people stop drinking. In the short term, people might experience spiking anxiety, trouble sleeping, headaches, shaking, agitation, rising blood pressure, a racing heart or nausea.

These symptoms are to some degree different from a simple next-day hangover. They usually start within six hours to a day after a person's last drink. If someone is going to experience more severe complications, they typically show up around the second or third day.

"That doesn't meant that after day three people are completely free from alcohol withdrawal symptoms," Leggio said. Problems like insomnia, anxiety, moodiness and a craving for alcohol can persist for weeks or even months.

These problems occur in less than 50 percent of people who give up regular alcohol consumption, Leggio said. Scientists aren't sure whether those people are genetically predisposed to withdrawal syndrome, but they do know that some gene variants make people more likely to become dependent on alcohol in the first place.

Among people that do go through withdrawal, roughly one in twenty will face a dangerous cluster of symptoms called delirium tremens, which includes confusion, seizures, or hallucinations. Some people even go into cardiac arrest or a coma, or die.

Doctors cannot predict for certain who will experience delirium tremens, but the condition is more likely to show up in people who have more severe alcohol dependence or have gone through withdrawal before.

Some people going through withdrawal just need to be monitored by their doctor, while other cases are serious enough to require hospitalization and medication. The most common drugs used to combat withdrawal belong to a group called benzodiazepines that calm the nervous system, which includes Valium.

Why does it happen?

During alcohol withdrawal, "The body's now suffering because the drug that's typically onboard, alcohol, is not there any longer," Leggio says. "The lack of alcohol in the system does affect the entire brain."

Over time, the brain starts to make changes to accommodate alcohol's constant presence. Alcohol mimics the effects of the neurotransmitter GABA, which typically dampens communication between cells. So over time, people end up with less GABA than they would normally need and more of its opposite, glutamate, which tells nerve cells to fire.

When people finally stop drinking, there is both a dearth of inhibitory GABA and a surplus of glutamate. "When people will withdraw from alcohol you have a sort of hyperactivity of the brain," says Leggio. "This increased activation of the cells will cause a domino effect that will result in all the symptoms."

The frenzied activity of glutamate, unchecked by inhibitory GABA, is responsible for spikes in heart rate and blood pressure, as well as the increased risk of convulsions and delirium that people face while in withdrawal.

Alcohol dependence and withdrawal mess with many other neurotransmitters as well. Dopamine initially increases in responses to alcohol, but then decreases following chronic alcohol exposure. Other chemical messengers like noradrenaline and corticotropin-releasing hormone up their action. These compounds are involved in stress or alertness, and contribute to the agitation, sleep problems and anxiety people feel during withdrawal.

When people go through multiple cycles of withdrawal, the symptoms become even more grueling. Called kindling, this happens because of long-term changes in the plasticity of the brain and in the balance between different neurotransmitters.

A dangerous condition

Alcohol is made from small, simple molecules that are lipophilic, meaning they dissolve well in fatty substances like the membranes of our cells. "Alcohol may reach any area and may affect any cell," Leggio said. "So the effects on the biochemistry of the brain due to alcohol and alcohol withdrawal are much more radical compared to other drugs."

And taking other drugs can exacerbate its symptoms. Cocaine and marijuana, for instance, can boost heart rate. So taking them while in the throes of withdrawal, which already ratchets heart rate up, can make it even worse.

But in spite of its dangers, "Actually alcohol withdrawal is a relatively small problem compared to the chronic alcohol use," Leggio says. "It's more important to have a patient understand that treatment of alcohol dependence is a longer term commitment…that goes beyond being in detox for a couple weeks."

The neural changes that enable alcohol withdrawal take at least five to ten years to form. It's unusual to see symptoms in young people serious enough to require medication. "This doesn't mean that the college student doesn't have alcohol withdrawal symptoms," Leggio said.

Those symptoms, although initially temporary and milder than what one would see in a full-blown withdrawal syndrome, can still be problematic. Binge drinking is a common problem among college students, which means many young people regularly engage in excessive drinking and go through withdrawal between binges. Some of them may experience symptoms such as agitation and restlessness, for which they sometimes get misdiagnosed as having an anxiety disorder.

In general, it's best to intervene early on. Treatment for alcohol dependence can include talk therapy or medication to dull the craving for alcohol.

"If at some point in your life, when you stop drinking, you see your hands shaking, you feel that you don't sleep well and are more agitated, don't wait months and years," Leggio said. "Your body will develop more severe alcohol withdrawal syndrome."

07 December 2015

Many of us have occasionally engaged in a nocturnal raid to fridges to silence a demanding stomach or get just one more bite of some delicious leftovers. For some, however, late night binges are more than guilty pleasures. Researchers estimate that up to 1 percent of the US population suffers at some point from sleep related eating disorder—better known as sleep eating—a medical condition that causes individuals who are fully or partially asleep to act on an uncontrollable urge to eat.

First recognized in the 1950s, food-related parasomnia still isn't fully understood or thoroughly studied. No one knows what causes sleep eating, although patients insist that grumbling from empty stomachs has nothing to do with it. "It is not a hunger-driven behavior, but a compulsion to eat," says Carlos Schenck, a senior psychiatrist at the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center and a professor at the University of Minnesota.

What researchers do know is that the disorder combines features of abnormal sleep—sleepwalking and sleep apnea, for example—and eating problems, such as anorexia and bulimia. "If you imagine a Venn diagram, where those two types of disorders intersect, that's where I think sleep eating would be," says John Winkelman, chief of the Sleep Disorders Clinical Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. Most people do not know that sleep eating is a medical disorder, however, and do not seek medical help. "Many doctors have no idea what to do about it, either," he says.

Sleep eating is sometimes confused with a similar and somewhat overlapping condition called night eating syndrome, in which individuals eat at least half of their daily calories just before bed, or fully awaken at night only to find that eating is the only thing that will allow them to fall back to sleep. Both disorders tend to be more common in women and usually first manifest in a patient's teens or early 20s. Those with daytime eating disorders seem more susceptible to sleep eating, as do those with sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome, a powerful urge to move the legs, especially at night. Certain sedatives, including zolpidem (Ambien), can also induce sleep eating in some people.

There is evidence that sleep eating runs in families, and that childhood sleepwalking can gradually morph into sleep eating. "This is a very impressive phenomenon that attests to the power of two basic instincts—sleeping and eating—coming together in a clinically pathological manner," Schenck says.

The patients who come to Winkelman and Schenck for sleep eating often beeline to the kitchen several times per week, or even per night. They may eat in an orderly fashion, or they may use their hands. Some take the food back with them to bed, and might fall asleep with it in their mouth. Occasionally, they awaken in the middle of an episode, finding themselves standing in front of the fridge with no awareness of how they got there.

Foods high in carbohydrates, fat and sugar tend to be most favored—cake, pasta, cookies, chips, peanut butter. Healthy ones, on the other hand, are usually shunned; Schenck says he has had several patients who would throw heads of lettuce on the floor. In rare cases, sleep eaters will attempt to ingest something inedible, such as frozen foods, paper or even nail polish remover.

In its most severe form, the disorder can be life altering. One of the more common consequences is weight gain. "Two patients over the years needed gastric bypass surgery because of morbid obesity caused by sleep eating," Schenck says. In another case, he says, a woman wracked up a $2,000 dental bill because of the damage inflicted on her teeth at night due to sleep-related eating. Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol can also develop as a consequence of nocturnal eating. Sometimes, patients will try to compensate for overeating at night by not eating during the day, or they may eat a second dinner just before going to bed to try to suppress their appetite. Neither strategy seems to work, however.

The psychological impacts can be serious as well. As Winkelman says, "There's a tremendous amount of shame."

Treating the condition involves first trying to identify any contributing drivers such as medications or restless legs syndrome. Eliminating the meds or treating a patient for restless legs syndrome often solves the problem. If neither of those are the culprit, then two types of pharmaceuticals—SSRIs, especially Zoloft, and appetite suppressants like Topamax—have shown promise for some patients. Winkelman is conducting a double blind study of that latter drug now.

Simply locking up the fridge or not keeping food on the premises, however, does not seem to work. Sleep eaters may wander out of the house in their search for food, or become extremely agitated should their urges be denied. "One woman paid her three teenagers to sleep on the floor in the kitchen to prevent her from eating," Schenck says. "But she became so frustrated that she paid them even more to let her eat ad libitum."

07 December 2015

At first glance treadmill desks may sound like the sort of weird futuristic absurdist amalgamation designed to turn office workers once-and-for-all into ultra-productive, ignorantly-blissful, utterly-efficient hamsters.

That might not actually be that far from the truth, but it's not necessarily such a bad thing.

Research has already found evidence that walking can boost creative thinking and improve memory. It might even help the brain work better by increasing the functional connectivity among brain areas. It's logical to think that those same cognitive benefits should apply to a treadmill desk user.

The challenge is finding out if reality (and data) follows logic.

(image)Standing deskIkea

The treadmill desk and its effects on thinking, performance and productivity

Most desk research uses productivity as the measuring stick. The theory goes that improved cognitive function aided by walking while working should increase productivity. A 2015 study looked at participants' recall and attention levels during and after working on treadmill desks and found "behavioral, neurophysiological and perceptual evidence" that short-term memory and attention increased during the time immediately after using a treadmill desk.

Some research suggests that the effects of walking all day don't just benefit your boss, your company and (hopefully) your paycheck, but they seem to have a positive impact on your mood and physical health as well. A 2014 study published in The Journal of Occupational Health Psychology looked at 180 participants and found those working on walking workstations reported higher satisfaction and arousal, and experienced less boredom and stress compared with their seated peers, suggesting that working while walking might offer psychological benefits to individuals. The results of four studies on treadmill desks, with 167 total participants, also generally suggested no negative effect on learning and reading. A study presented earlier this year at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in San Diego found that sedentary office workers who switched to a treadmill desk for two hours a day for two months improved their sleep quality. A 2015 review of previous studies found that treadmill desks provided physiological benefits by improving blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

But not every piece of research is aligned on the positive effects of walking while working. A study published in April in PLOS One, for example, included 75 healthy young participants and randomly assigned them to a seated stationary or a treadmill desk. The participants were asked to complete a series of tests to gauge their mental performance. The results showed the people on treadmill desks actually performed worse on concentration and memory, and even typing, compared with those who had been seated.

However, these differences in mental performance were modest and people still performed in the average ranges—the researchers said. "Those declines may not outweigh the benefit of the physical activity gains from walking on a treadmill," they wrote. There's also a chance that performance might return to normal once users get accustomed to working on treadmill desks.

Real-life enthusiasm

Kristin Horan, a doctoral student in industrial-organizational psychology at Bowling Green State University, thinks that treadmill desks might actually have benefits in the long term and be worth the initial inconveniences of expense (desks range in price from $800 to $5,000) and modifying work habits. Previous research findings and the anecdotal experiences of avid users have led her to suspect that walking on a treadmill boosts creative thinking and doesn't detract from productivity.

But there's been a lot of criticism related to existing study designs, from small number of participants to inadequate test duration, and the more general question about just how much of lab results actually translate to real life. So to collect better data, Horan is working on launching a 200-participant study to compare the cognitive performance of people who use a treadmill desk and other types of workstations.

"The research in the lab allows us to examine the benefits of treadmill desks in a more fine-grained way, while field research allows us to examine the benefits on a broad scale," Horan says.

Meanwhile, some people have already made the switch, and they say it's working for them. Katherine Sliter, a consultant and an avid treadmill-desk user working from her home office in Indianapolis is one. A trained industrial-organizational psychologist, Sliter is interested in making sure her work environment helps her do her job in a way that supports her health as much as her work life.

"I've gotten to the point where I can work at 1.5 miles per hour," she says. "The thing I struggled with a little bit initially was fine mousing; if I really needed to get into Excel and drag something I maxed out at 1 mile an hour. Within a couple of weeks I'd gotten very comfortable with it."

On her treadmill desk four to seven hours a day, Sliter lost some extra weight, but it's her improved focus that has her "singing the praises" of her active work station.

"The biggest selling point is not so much the calories and weight loss but it makes you happier, less bored. I'm the type of person who gets distracted very easily," she says. "I'll be typing, writing a paper, do something in Excel. I'm going to check Facebook and I look over there… This actually makes me much more focused. I don't' get that 'I'm bored and I need to do something to occupy my mind.' I get more done on here."

The physical activity also contributes to a sense of well-being, impacting mental health. The physiological impact as a result of stress reduction can give the brain a feel-good boost that can be difficult to measure in a scientific study.

"Having so recently come from a cubicle job, it's night and day how I feel at the end of the day," says Sliter. "I'm feeling more relaxed, feeling happier, feeling like the day hasn't drained me."

02 November 2015

Up until a decade ago, the idea of choir was closely associated with Sunday morning hymns. But today, choral singing has become a popular and even cool activity, in which more 40 million Americans participate.

If you're not among them, maybe join now. Singing in a choir is beneficial in a number of ways—from exercising the brain to improving breathing, posture and muscle tension. It is also a unique social activity, one that might have actually evolved specifically for the purpose of making people feel bonded with their social groups. We recently conducted two studies that revealed group singing not only enhances social bonds between people, it also does so particularly quickly, acting as an excellent icebreaker. We also found that community singing is effective even for bonding large groups, making it an ideal behavior to improve our broader social networks. This is particularly valuable in today's often alienating world, where many of our social interactions are conducted remotely via Facebook and Twitter.

For the first study, we followed choirs that are part of Popchoir, a British organization that includes 10 choirs around different areas of London, rehearsing independently but practicing the same music. Once a year all of the choirs rehearse and perform together as a much larger choir. To us, this seemed reminiscent of the way that hunter-gatherer groups might generally act as independent small groups, but form periodic 'mega-bands' where many neighbouring tribes combine for some ritual activity. We were interested in finding out whether people could experience the same sense of community with these large groups of relative strangers as they experienced with people they met once a week, so we asked them some questions about social connections before and after singing.

What we found was more social bonding in the large group contexts. At first we thought this could be a really good demonstration of how musical activities have the capacity to bond big groups of humans better than other social behaviours such as sharing a joke, which only happens in small groups. However, people in the large group also knew each other less well, so we wanted to check whether this might also be an influence on the bonding that occurred.

The second study involved working with the Workers Educational Association in the UK to set up adult education classes in singing, crafts and creative writing. We visited the groups three times over a seven-month period to see how socially bonded they felt to the group as a whole, and how this changed over time. We expected singing to create stronger bonds between classmates than other activities. But to our surprise, by the end of the seven months, singers and non-singers felt equally close to their groups. However, what actually made singing special was something that happened right at the start of the seven months, when singers reported a much bigger boost in how close they felt to their new classmates after a single class, compared to the non-singers. In other words, even though people doing the three different activities ended up feeling equally bonded with one another after seven months, the singers experienced much more bonding when classmates were strangers.

Taking the two studies together we conclude that singing can have an 'ice-breaker' effect, kick-starting the social bonding process between strangers. The findings suggest that maybe the fundamental power that singing has over other activities is to allow large new communities to coalesce and begin to feel part of the same group very rapidly – even when it involves more than 200 people. If we're right, and singing can serve this fundamental purpose of bringing together groups of people that didn't previously have any connection, then it could prove a useful way to bring together disparate groups and forge these into unified communities.

26 October 2015

A girl named Julia has joined the cast of Sesame Street as its first muppet with autism. Julia appears in an online storybook, "We're Amazing, 1, 2, 3," in which she and Elmo have a play date and are joined by another muppet, Abby, who learns that Julia likes to play a little differently from her and Elmo.

Julia won't appear yet on the main Sesame Street television show, but the storybook is part of a website and app, "Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children," which also features videos and resources for children and parents. The initiative aims to reduce stigma surrounding autism spectrum disorders and spread awareness about children with autism.

"She has some behaviors like not looking at you directly in the eye, she's a little more sensitive to noises and lights," Jeanette Betancourt, the senior vice president of U.S. social impact at Sesame Workshop, told ABC News. But when Julia comes together with Abby and Elmo, she shows not only her differences but also what she has in common.

In the video, Julia, a four-year-old with orange hair and green eyes, plays with and alongside Elmo. In some activities they are alike—both love to swing and sing, for example. In others, they diverge a bit —Elmo builds his blocks into tall towers and gleefully sends them crashing to the floor, while Julia lines hers up in a row.

When Elmo's friend Abby finds them on the playground she is initially a bit confused by Julia, who doesn't immediately respond to her greeting or request to play. But eventually, Julia invites her to join them and they play and run around, showing their excitement in different ways; flapping for Julia, bouncing and spinning for Elmo and Abby. When they visit a shop for a snack, Julia also expresses her dislike of loud noises and preference for a cold drink instead of hot chocolate.

Parents of children with autism appreciate the representation that Julia offers, especially as a girl because autism is more commonly diagnosed in boys and it's easy for girls to get overlooked. But they're also hopeful that Julia will begin to appear in other Sesame Street materials, where kids who haven't actively sought out the storybook can learn more about her.

"I want to know that [my daughter] Cassie will go to school, and someone will sit with her on the swing, and sing with her, and not think she's weird," Chrissy George, mother of seven-year-old Cassie, who has autism, told the New York Times.

Julia represents just one flavor of autism, but a few more kids who express the condition in varied ways are featured in videos on the new website. Among them is Thomas, who uses an iPad to communicate and enjoys tossing dirt into the air and watching it drift away. Another kid is Louie, who likes to play freeze tag and build forts with his friends. And then there is Yessenia, whose sisters help her get ready in the morning and who flaps her arms to show how excited she is for school.

The creators of "See Amazing" are hoping the program will help children and families dealing with autism and that these glimpses into others' lives will also reach children without autism. "If you're five years old, and see another kid not making eye contact with you, you may think that child doesn't want to play with you. But that's not the case," Sherrie Westin, executive vice president of global impacts and philanthropy, said to PEOPLE. "We want to create greater awareness and empathy."

Gray Matters
20 October 2015

I am completely enshrouded in darkness and silence, although I can hear my heartbeat and my ears ringing slightly. I try to clear my mind, but affairs of the day intrude—I need to update my website, I need to figure out why the gas in my apartment isn't working…I am also made extremely aware of my body, and the fact that I keep bumping into the side of the tank with my feet. Or, alternatively, I feel the need to move my feet outward to touch the edge, lurking there in inch or so away; this is one instance where being 6'2" is not helpful. This intermittent touching reminds me of where I am.

I'm in a floating tank, trying out a sensory deprivation practice that began in the 1950s and after a hiatus is reappearing, in London, Toronto, New York — basically anywhere you can find large pockets of people in search of new experiences similar to yoga and meditation. There are now 267 float centers in the United States, a significant increase from the estimated 85 in existence in 2011, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Floating involves laying inside a tank filled with warm water that blocks out sound and noise. In a world filled with constant stimulation, it's nice to experience the opposite: complete darkness or (near) silence, and something akin to weightlessness. Most float centers add massive amounts of epsom salts to the water in their "pods," creating a buoyancy greater than that of the Dead Sea and allowing you to float.

The idea is that once you shut down external stimulation, the brain's intrinsic activity would come to the surface. For example, think of the visual hallucinations that people experience after becoming blind due to eye damage, known as Charles Bonnet syndrome. The brain's visual system is still healthy and active, and as it no longer receives signals from the retinal cells, it begins creating its own images. Much of what's known about floating and what this short-term sensory deprivation really does remains anecdotal, but reports from people doing the floating, which is known scientifically as Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST), are fascinating. People have reported visual and auditory hallucinations, timelessness and mystical experiences, out-of-body sensations and an even memories of being born. Many have likened it to an experience half-way between being awake and being asleep, or described it as being similar to taking certain drugs—although not quite as intense.

The potential psychological benefits of the practice haven't been extensively studied in large amounts of people. So far, though, the existing data, collected in a number of small studies over the years, suggests that it helps people to relax, feel rejuvenated, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, feel more optimistic and even treat pain.

One 2014 study of 65 people in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine found, for example, that "stress, depression, anxiety, and… pain were significantly decreased whereas optimism and sleep quality significantly increased" after people engaged in 12 45-minute flotation sessions over a period of seven weeks. Other work has shown that floating can reduce levels of adrenaline and of cortisol, a hormone that increases in response to stress.

So I thought I'd try it out myself, booking an hour-long float session at Lift / Next Level Floats in Brooklyn. I was greeted by co-owner David Leventhal, a friendly, easy-going man who got hooked on floating decades ago and recently decided to devote his career to it, opening the store with fellow float devotee Gina Antioca earlier this year. When I arrived there on a recent friday, Leventhal escorted me down a hall into a private room, dominated by a large white pod.

Inside the room, you shower, put in earplugs to prevent water from getting in your ears and proceed into a large pod-like tank that is large enough to float in while laying down. It's filled with about four inches of water warmed to around 94 degrees Fahrenheit, roughly the temperature of your skin. Leventhal says the water in each tank is infused with 1,000 pounds of epsom salts, ensuring that you bob on the surface, and giving the water a silky, viscous feel.

Once you start the session and close the lid, you can turn on music or change the color of the lights, although it's recommended to cut off both. So I did.

In total darkness and relative silence, I try to set my mind free from its usual routine—perhaps think deeper to see what else is there once I get past my daily worries. But intruding thoughts keep coming back: I consider the trouble of my neighbor waking me up with loud noise late at night, and how much it is stressing me out. But then a deeper recognition: The real problem is how angry and annoyed I become with the sound, and not necessarily the sound itself. This proves to be a significant achievement that has helped me deal with the problem in a small way. I also come to picture my current concerns as layers of geological strata that remain undigested, a piling-up of things that need to be addressed and which aren't going away. That visualization helps motivate me to get going on some past-due problems. In other words, I'm starting to see how this whole floating thing could be useful.

Then, without warning, the lights come out. "Welcome back," says a soothing voice that the pod is programmed to play. It jars me much more than expected; I wasn't ready to return. I feel like I just managed to get to a place where I could make the kind of progress and have the sort of insights that many floaters rave about. Just like meditation, I'm told, floating takes practice.

After floating, I hang out in Lift's lounge, where I come across a book by John C. Lily, the eccentric neuroscientist who invented isolation tanks and floatation therapy in the 1950s. One anecdote from the book— Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments—has stuck with me: "In the province of the mind, what one believes to be true is true or becomes true, within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the mind, there are no limits…"

Lily was a famously eccentric scientist who wrote that floating helped reveal entire previously unexplored worlds within the mind, and who also experimented often with LSD and dolphin communication, sometimes even giving the animals the drug. He credited the sensory isolation within the tank to many of his epiphanies, and he floated throughout his life.

Floating reached its peak popularity in the 70s and 80s, when it was reportedly used by celebrities like Yoko Ono and Robin Williams, but died down by the early 1990s in the middle of HIV epidemic. Its return and growth has been helped by its new fans and promoters such as comic and podcast host Joe Rogan, who's said that "the sensory deprivation chamber has been the most important tool that I've ever used for developing my mind, for thinking, for evolving."

While I wouldn't go that far, I can say that even in a single session I had some realizations that have been helpful, and it relaxed me deeply. I will be back.

16 October 2015

Taking a bath is supposed to be a relaxing experience—as long as you don't have the condition called "bath-related headache." Although a rare phenomenon, some cases of it have been reported in recent years. One of the latest is the case of a 59-year-old woman in Japan, who one day started getting throbbing headaches whenever she took a shower or bath.

The woman first experienced the headache while she was bathing one morning. She went to a local hospital, but brain-imaging tests she underwent there did not show any abnormalities. After the headaches began to occur with every shower, the woman was transferred to the emergency department of Juntendo University Urayasu Hospital, and stayed at the hospital for further examination.

There's no known effective treatment for the explosive headaches that strike when the body comes in contact with water. Doctors have tried several drugs, such as migraine medications, to treat the condition in patients, but these medications have only worked occasionally, according to previous case reports.

Interestingly, the condition affects mostly postmenopausal, middle-age or older Asian women, according to the report of the woman's case, published this year in Neurology and Clinical Neuroscience.

While staying at the hospital, the woman continued to experience the same type of headache every time she took a shower, or even when she brushed her teeth or wiped her body with a hot towel. The doctors gave her anti-inflammatory drugs and calcium channel blockers, medications typically used for migraines, but her condition did not improve.

During an examination six days after she was admitted to the hospital, the doctors found that some of the blood vessels in the woman's brain were constricted. The constriction appeared to be temporary and was resolved in two later exams taken about two weeks and two months after her admission.

Finally, the doctors gave the woman a drug called zolmitriptan, 15 minutes before she took a shower. Although this medication constricts blood vessels in the brain, previous research has suggested that it may prevent some types of migraine. This pretreatment with zolmitriptan made the woman's headache less severe. The next day, she took zolmitriptan 30 minutes before taking a shower and her headache was completely suppressed.

To see whether it was indeed zolmitriptan that helped her, the woman then tried taking a shower without taking the medicine first, and her throbbing headache returned. After that, she started regularly taking the drug before bathing or showering and the headache no longer occurred.

Some researchers have considered bath-related headache a type of thunderclap headache — a severe headache with a sudden onset — because of certain similarities between the two. But bath-related headache has recently been classified as a condition attributed to the constriction of blood vessels in the brain, according to the International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition beta version.

This is why the blood vessel-constricting medication used before the woman described in the report took a shower should be avoided during an episode of bath-related headache, when the constriction is potentially occurring, said Dr. Chad Hoyle, a neurologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, who was not involved in the case report.

"We would not want people to take that during an episode because that could worsen the vasoconstriction," Hoyle told Braindecoder. (Vasoconstriction is a medical term for the constriction of blood vessels).

And, even though taking the medication ahead of time seemed to help in this particular case, "that's something I think needs to be looked at further and cautiously because this is a case report and not a series of multiple patients or a larger randomized control study," Hoyle said.

The case report is still interesting to neurologists in the US, as they don't tend to see such cases in their practice, he said. "This is more, as the article mentions, something that has been observed in the Asian population," Hoyle said.

Exactly why cases of bath-related headaches have been observed primarily in the Asian population is not clear. The number of reported cases is still small and physicians may eventually start to see the headaches in other populations as well. In fact, in 2012, researchers described a case of a Brazilian woman with no Asian ancestry who had the condition.

09 October 2015

You're sitting outside a café with a friend enjoying a great cup of coffee on a beautiful day. When you glance up the sidewalk, you see an elderly man with a disheveled appearance heading your way. He's looking around, as though he's lost or confused. Your impulse is to help, but how?

A colleague is recounting what happened at her last meeting, telling a particularly funny story as you approach he office door. But she suddenly stops, office key in hand, and stares at the door. She looks down at her key but doesn't make a move. Do you wait or offer to unlock the door?

In the first case you might not know the person has a form of dementia; in the second you may know about your colleague's recent diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. How you handle either situation is the same, says Kenneth Kosik, co-director of the Neuroscience Research Institute at University of California, Santa Barbara. Kosik, who has studied the brain and various forms of dementia for over 30 years, has some suggestions for how to improve interactions with people with dementia.

Calm is best

Different forms of dementia have different symptoms, such as memory loss, impulsive behaviors or personality change. Any of these changes can result in frustration, anger and strong emotions for both the patient and caregivers. The brain simply doesn't function in what most people consider a normal way, and for the person who can't remember how to unlock a door it can be very upsetting. So the most important thing to do is to help the person calm down.

That doesn't always happen in a logical way, Kosik says. People with dementia can't always follow rational thoughts. That's why it's necessary to find out what the individual is trying to accomplish – such as going someplace or finding someone – and then respond in a reassuring manner. And you don't always have to correct them. If your mother-in-law is concerned about the purple-green kangaroo in the room, then just talk to her about it.

"It's far better to keep the person calm," Kosik says. "I don't know what the problem might be to play into a person's delusion if it's not destructive or harmful to the person or anyone else."

He likens it to playing with children. The dolls have names, even elaborate life stories. Sometimes children make up imaginary friends who live in the house with them and everyone plays along, even enjoying the game. The creativity is a means to help settle agitation.

"Some types of dementia reflect a release of our creativity and imagination that is kept suppressed because the front part of the brain – the self-monitoring part of the brain – keeps a lid on things. There's a certain way to behave, people have certain expectations of us. Therefore we have to fall into line. When the frontal part of the brain becomes impaired, sometimes some of these more imaginative and creative things happen that aren't destructive in any way."

Step into their shoes

Focusing on the person in distress, and seeing their perspective, is the best way to choose how to respond. But that can be difficult when the idea of how someone is supposed to behave interferes. It's necessary to suspend those ideas in order to consider positive responses, Kosik says.

In the case of Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia, memory and learning abilities particularly take a hit. Damage to brain areas critical to processing and forming memories, such as the hippocampus, impairs a person ability to recall certain memories and skills or learn new information. Symptoms can very from person to person—an individual might still be able to remember how to play tennis or a musical instrument but not remember how to unlock a door with a key.

"Many people feel they might want to try to teach (the person) to regain those skills, and that's a mistake," Kosik says. "It's much better that, if you can recognize when a skill is lost, to simply help them and do it for them. Otherwise you're going to encounter a huge amount of frustration."

In such situations it's better to first ask and offer to help, rather than forcing a solution, which can undo the calm and escalate to anger and conflict.

Another form of dementia is called frontotemporal dementia or FTD, which often strikes in late middle age and affects the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. Often, memory is not as affected as in Alzheimer's, but a person's behavior and personality changes. Some people with FTD have been known to suddenly show a creative and artistic awakening, creating work that hints at savant abilities. These individuals may also display rigid or erratic mannerisms. This reminds Kosik of a scene from the movie Rain Main in which the autistic character played by Dustin Hoffman is very specific about the syrup needing to be on the table before the pancakes. If you know the person well enough, you might be able to distract him by pointing out something else that will be interesting and will catch his attention. It might not work, but it's one way to help calm the person and shift his focus, setting up the conditions to address what he needs.

Compassion is essential

"When a person has an impairment, it's very concerning and you do have to look out for them," Kosik says. "If a person can't walk, you get them a wheelchair. If the person can't see, you get them a seeing-eye dog. If there are other inabilities that have to do with cognition, you help them."

This isn't about making judgments or getting someone back in line. It's about recognizing the very real difficulties people with dementia face. Kosik warns against "glossing over" these difficult situations when they arise. The underlying medical condition needs to be acknowledged and addressed, especially when there's a potential for harm. But, he says, accommodating the needs of this person is the same as accommodating those of someone who doesn't have dementia. Just as you would unlock the door for a man with his arms loaded down with groceries, you can do the same for someone who has forgotten the connection between a lock and a key.

Recognizing the concerns of person and the circumstances takes some effort. It means thinking differently in order to gain a better understanding.

A person with memory loss and cognitive impairment might think the radio playing in another room is an intruder trying to get into the house. To understand that perception you have to suspend what's obvious to you – it's a news program – and consider that this person doesn't know where the voices are coming from.

Kosik says making the effort to understand how a person might mistake a fireplace for a toilet will help keeping interactions as positive as possible. "Try to see the world through their eyes," he says.