Neuroscience haiku

Blood-brain barrier
Microwaves, radiation
Open sesame.

Open sesame, in this haiku, refers to the dangerous break between the blood-brain barrier. This potentially fatal outcome can occur from exposure to microwave and radiation. This, and other, haiku in Eric Chulder’s, The Little Book of Neuroscience Haiku, deliver a quick, entertaining, and simple way to learn about the brain.

Every page in the book contains a haiku with a short explanation. For this haiku Chulder says: “THE BLOOD-BRAIN BARRIER, created by tight-fitting endothelial cells that surround blood vessels, limits materials in the blood from entering the brain. The blood-brain barrier can be broken down by microwaves and radiation, permitting the entry of chemicals into the brain’s blood supply.” The explanation is as succinct as the haiku itself.

Eric Chudler, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist at the University of Washington and the executive director of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering. He also hosts the website Neuroscience for Kids at Dr. Chulder’s discusses his approach in writing this book at, where his answers are as precise as the contents of his book.

The blood-brain barrier poem is from the “Places” collection in the book. The Little Book of Neuroscience Haiku is organized into three sections: places, things, and people. Places references locations in the brain. Things is about things that interact with the brain. People, of course, are people who have contributed to neuroscience as scientists, writers, artists, etc.

Excerpt from the book:

book excerpts

Borrowing from a traditional Japanese poetic form to present neuroscience, is a unique approach for expanding the horizons of knowledge about the brain. It is also a suitable format for quick flips while waiting at the doctor’s office, waiting for a train, waiting in line, etc. If you are suffering from information overload, this book is a nice change of pace for learning about the nervous system in short bursts of reading.

Indulge your brain
Feed it some haiku
about itself.

To read other material from Leena, go to

Ready to be tested?

How does the brain work? Using real and fictional characters to setup a story framework, I write about the science of the human (and sometimes animal) mind. I am a journalist rather than a neuroscientist so my approach is exploratory.

Click here to take a 10-question quiz which covers some of the topics I have discussed in my articles. To explore the subjects further, use the site search form (on the right) to find the relevant articles by using keywords from the questions and answers (e.g. enter “turmeric in the search engine to learn more about question #4).



topic Creativity


Clyde is sitting in front of a large white canvas. He starts to throw random colors onto the canvas and within a few minutes, an image starts to emerge. Several hours later, a rough draft of a painting is taking shape.

“Clyde, honey, you have a doctor’s appointment in forty-five minutes.” His wife, Irene, stands at the door watching him for few minutes before she finally interrupts.

As he heads out the door, she wonders once again how her husband’s mind works. As a research scientist, her work is so different than his that she is often in awe of her husband’s casual creative leaps of mind.

Illustration by Leena Prasad

Illustration by Leena Prasad

Irene has read a little bit about how the brain works. She knows that axons are the transport lines between brain neurons and they are protected by a material called the myelin sheath. White matter is the collection of axons and the thickness of the myelin sheaths determine the density of the white matter.  White matter carries messages across the brain.

Irene reads about research done by Dr. Rex Jung, a neuroscientist who studies creativity. According to his findings, the white matter in the creativity circuits of the mind is denser in highly creative people, a similarity shared by people with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. This is not to say that creative people suffer from psychopathology, rather that there are some similarities in the structure of the brain. Thicker white matter in some parts of the brain correlates to higher IQ whereas thinner white matter in other parts of the brain correlates to higher creativity (as defined by the researchers). Dense white matter carries information faster whereas thinner white matter slows down the transmission. This resonates with Irene because it seems to her that her thoughts travel in straight lines whereas Clyde’s mind sometimes takes loops and turns to go from one place to another.

Illustration by Leena Prasad

Illustration by Leena Prasad

Clyde is highly intelligent in addition to being very creative. So, this means that he has thick white matter in the IQ areas and thinner white matter in the creativity processing neurons. But there’s more to creativity than just the white matter. According to Jung, the pre-frontal cortex, the brain’s planning and control center, takes a break when the mind is experiencing a creative moment. This clarifies how Clyde often forgets about practical matters when his mind switches to a creative mode. It also explains his ability to be playful without the pre-frontal cortex putting brakes on his uninhibited ability to have fun.

When Clyde walks through the door several hours later, he has a bagful of groceries in his hand and has remembered to bring everything on her list. Later, he pulls out a painting of a dozen yellow roses from his studio to surprise her.  His wife is happy that his thick white matter, thin white matter, and pre-frontal cortex are working as a team to create a pleasant day for both of them.

Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at

Josh Buchanan, a UC Berkeley graduate, edits this column with an eye on grammar and scientific approach.


  1. Jung, Rex., White Matter Integrity, Creativity, and Psychopathology:Disentangling Constructs with Diffusion Tensor Imaging, PLoS ONE |, March 22, 2010
  2. Tippett,  Krista, host of Creativity and the Everyday Brain with Rex Young, On Being, May 2, 2013,



“Why a map, Mom?”

“Well, how do people normally use a map?”

“To get oriented to a place and to use that to find their way around.” Brian thinks for a minute. “So, it’s to understand where neurons are located inside the brain and how they are connected?” He pauses. “But don’t neuroscientists and neurosurgeons already know the locations and the connections?”

“They do but the brain has more than one billion neurons–” his mom says.

“–and several trillion neural connections or roads, you can say. Wait, are the neurotransmitters like roads or like cars? I guess they are like cars.”

His mom smiles. “That’s a close analogy. How do you think they will use the map?”

Brian scratches his chin.

“There are many diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinsons that we don’t fully understand,” his mom says. “ Obama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative will help them develop tools that can be used to not only map the brain but to understand how the neurons behave. So, it’s not just about creating a more detailed map but it’s also about getting a dynamic view of the stuff that happens in the brain.”

“But, how, how exactly? How will they capture the messages, the path traversed by the neurotransmitters, the messengers of the brain? I mean, that’s not a static thing…”

“Good point. The current studies use fMRI technologies to measure blood flow in specific parts of the brain. This helps them locate the place where neurotransmitters are active.”

“Yes, I know that!”

“Well, the idea of BRAIN is to provide funding to create more sophisticated tools than the fMRI, to see both high-level view of the neurons and their activities and to get a more close-up view—“

“—yeah, I get it.” He says impatiently. “But how is it different than the research already happening?”

“It’s not necessarily different. It’ll build on the existing work and provide additional resources.”

“Ah, so we can learn about the brain faster.”


“Mom, maybe I can get involved with the BRAIN initiative.”

“Yes, it’s a new thing. So, there will be all types of opportunities if the funding continues. But, first if you have to get qualified by studying neuroscience.”

“Maybe I can become a brain surgeon!”

“Sure, but that means you will learn and use what is already known about the brain. You won’t be making new discoveries. So you won’t be part of BRAIN.”

“So, a neuroscientist then?”

“Yes, or both,” his mom says.

“I can be like Oliver Sacks and be a brain-surgeon and a neuroscientist and a neuroscience writer.”

“Yes, you can be. But first, start exercising your brain on the math homework that’s due tomorrow.”

“Yes  Mom.”

Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at

Josh Buchanan, a UC Berkeley graduate, edits this column with an eye on grammar and scientific approach.


  1. Flatow,  Ira, host of President Obama Calls for a BRAIN Initiative, NPR>Science>Research News, April 5, 2013,
  2. Neuroscientists Weigh In on Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, Scientific American, May 2, 2013,

You are very sleepy…

topic hypnosis


The tall man on stage, dressed in a business suit, is clucking like a chicken. A pretty redhead, also on stage, laughs whenever the hypnotist says the word ‘paper’. A young boy says the word ‘tomato’ whenever the hypnotist touches him on the head.

Henry watches with fascination and is glad that he did not volunteer to be one of the performers’ guinea pigs. He wonders what hypnosis does to the brain.

Dr. Amir Raz, research professor at McGill University in Canada, conducted a study in which participants were able to perform better at a color recognition game while hypnotized. Normally, if an English-speaking person is asked to quickly identify the colors blueredgreen they become momentarily confused because of the dissonance between the words and the colors. Under hypnosis, there was less confusion and subjects were able to identify the colors faster because they were able to ignore the meaning of the words and simply look at the color.

Other neuroscientists are studying hypnosis in different contexts. Dr. David Oakley and Dr. Peter Halligan of Cardiff University conducted a study in which they mapped neural response to pain. hypnosisThe MRI’s on the right show blood flow within the brain while the patient was exposed to various conditions. The top figure shows the blood flow when the subject experienced pain from a physical stimulus. While under hypnosis, subjects were told that pain will be inflicted but no pain stimulus was actually used. Regardless, the subjects experienced pain as demonstrated by the middle MRI. Although not exactly the same, the top and middle images are somewhat identical. The bottom image shows much less activity in the brain when the subjects were simply told to imagine pain.

If Henry had volunteered to be hypnotized, he could have been on stage laughing at the mere mention of the word paper. It is possible that he will respond in the same manner as the study subjects in terms of his ability to identify the colors and to feel ghost pain. Not everyone is hypnotizable, however, and the subject has to be a willing participant in order for hypnosis to work.

As in most areas of brain research, the study of hypnosis has potential. Neuroscientists are in the beginning stages of studying the power of this ancient practice and are finding brain activity correlation with hypnosis. If Henry conducts a web search, he will find documentation of studies that show how hypnosis plays out within the neural networks of the brain.

Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found here and her column is published monthly at She has a journalism degree from Stanford.

Josh Buchanan, a UC Berkeley graduate, edits this column with an eye on grammar and scientific approach.

Dr. Nicola Wolfe is a neuroscience consultant for this column. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychopharmacology from Harvard University and has taught neuroscience courses for over 20 years at various universities.

1. Blakeslee, Sandra, This Is Your Brain Under Hypnosis, New York Times, Nov., 22, 2005
2. Raz, Amir., PhD; Shapiro, T., MD; Fan, Jin, PhD; Posner Michael I., PhD, Hypnotic Suggestion and the Modulation, Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2002;59:1155-1161
3. Oakley, David A., Halligan, Peter W., Hypnotic suggestion and cognitive neuroscience, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, No.x.

Needle Pleasure


topic Acupuncture
region All brain regions
chemicals Adenosine, dopamine


Adele’s eyes are closed. The music in the background slowly unties the knots in her muscles. She feels the tiny prick of the needles as they are inserted into her forehead, the side of her head, and near her eyes. A few needles are inserted near her ears while she lies face up on a massage table. Adele cannot see all the acupuncture needles that stick out from her face and does not feel any pain after the sensation of the initial prick.

Acupuncture releases a neurotransmitter called adenosine. One of the many roles of adenosine is to help in pain control. When the human skin is punctured with small holes, the body responds by preparing itself to manage the pain via the release of adenosine. This release of this neurotransmitter also acts on other pain in the body. Essentially, acupuncture coaxes the body into releasing a natural painkiller.

The acupuncturist places little fragrant eye pillows over Adele’s closed eyes, tells her to relax, and to not move her head. “It is best not to fall asleep,” she advises. She puts a small bell in Adele’s right hand and tells her to ring the bell if she needs anything. Adele hears soft footsteps moving towards the door, the flip of the light switch, and the door closing. She does not feel the needles at all. Instead, she feels relaxed and pampered, as if she is at a health spa.

After several minutes, Adele feels changes in the intensity of her migraine. The headache is not gone, but it is starting to wane in intensity. This makes her wonder if this is due to her psychological expectations or if there are actual physiological responses in her body. She knows that acupuncture works for many people but not everyone.

Adenosine attaches to receptors in order to transmit its message for releasing pain killers. It is possible to have insufficient or malfunctioning adenosine receptors. Thus, people with problematic adenosinereceptors will not have the same level of benefit from a treatment as someone with healthy receptors.

After several minutes, Adele starts to feel drowsy, but concentrates on staying awake, and using her mental energy to focus on chasing away the migraine. Adenosine slows down nerve signals thus causing drowsiness and relaxation. Eventually, the acupuncturist comes back into the room and removes the needles from Adele’s head. Adele can feel the change already. The migraine is not completely gone but it is much less severe. She feels happy and has to resist an urge to hug the acupuncturist.

Adele is in a great mood for the rest of the evening because the adenosine in her body causes a chain reaction of activating the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. Convinced about the results of the treatment, she calls the acupuncturist and leaves a message to request recurring weekly appointments. Although her decision for regular treatment might be motivated by the mood enhancing effects of dopamine, several studies show that consistent use of acupuncture is useful in reducing the intensity and frequency of migraine headaches.

This is a monthly column published in magazine and Leena is looking for other syndication opportunities. Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found here.

Josh Buchanan, a UC Berkeley graduate, edits this column with an eye on grammar and scientific approach.

Dr. Nicola Wolfe is a neuroscience consultant for this column. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychopharmacology from Harvard University and has taught neuroscience courses for over 20 years at various universities.


  1. Vickers, Andrew J., et all, Acupuncture for Chronic Pain, JAMA Internal Medicine,, Oct 2012
  2. Goldman, Nanna., et all, Adenosine A1 receptors mediate local anti-nociceptive effects of acupuncture, Nature Neurosicence,, March 2010
  3. Fredholm, Bertil B.,PhD; Svenningsson, Per MD PhD, Adenosine–dopamine interactions, Neurology, December 9, 2003 vol. 61 no. 11 suppl 6 S5-S9
  4. Takano T., Chen X., et all, Traditional acupuncture triggers a local increase in adenosine in human subjects. 2012 Dec;13(12):1215-23. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2012.09.012.

Fishing for IQ


topic food
region all regions


Fiona is getting a craving for fish. She thinks about how her mother used to tell her to eat more fish because fish sharpens your intellect. “The Japanese eat a lot of fish,” she would say, as if that somehow proved a correlation. It was only later that scientists found a connection between eating fish and having a healthy heart. But a better brain? She laughs and wonders if the Japanese have a healthier heart, and maybe her mom should have told her about that instead.

Fish contains a high level of omega-3 fatty acids. Various studies conducted on rats have correlated omega-3 intake with improvements in learning and memory.  Thus, Fiona’s mother might be right. The body cannot make its own omega-3, so this fatty acid must be provided via food and fish is one of the best sources.

Fiona plans her dinner for the night: curried tilapia, garlic spinach, brown rice. As she waits for the tilapia to finish cooking, she pops some anchovies into her mouth. The tilapia and anchovies will provide omega-3, but tilapia only provides 150mg per ounce as opposed to the anchovies which provide a whopping 2300-2,400 mg per ounce.

Her best friend is East-Indian and says that turmeric is good for the brain. Fiona has read about studies which show that curcumin from turmeric can help prevent neurological decline related to Alzheimer’s. She likes turmeric and other Indian spices, so she is happy to use them to make her meals tastier. The folic acid in her spinach may also reduce age related cognitive decline. The folate studies conducted on humans are inconclusive and require further research.

As Fiona waits for her dinner to finish cooking, she looks in her refrigerator for something to drink. There’s milk and orange juice, but neither is a good accompaniment for fish. She makes a hot cup of green tea instead. If she had chosen milk, she would have opted for Vitamin D which is good for the brain, but she can get this from simply walking around outside when the sun is out. The orange juice would have provided flavonoids, which are good for the brain, but she is still getting this from the green tea.

It is not easy to make food choices that provide optimum benefits. Even thought Fiona’s fish is providing essential nutrients for brain and body, the selenium found in fish can cause mental decline. Moreover, many fish contain mercury, which is a known neurotoxin. The brown rice that Fiona is eating is great for fiber and other nutrients, but it is also a source of zinc, too much of which can cause cognitive impairment.

Fiona does not know the science of how her dinner will impact her brain.  Thus, she might have trouble balancing the positive and negative food intake in order to maximize the food nutrients. With the influx of information currently available to consumers of popular media, some of it contradictory, it’s difficult to make a decision as to what is really healthy or not. As with many areas of neuroscience, the study of the affect of food on the brain is in its infancy.

The lessons learned from ancestors, directly through our parents or through the larger cultures, are probably helpful in making food decisions. After all, the advice being passed down is based on hands-on experience of generations. But if Fiona simply follows the advice given to her by her mother and best-friend and ignores new research, she will not learn about the dangers of food and the important of balance. If she attempts to balance traditional knowledge with scientific findings, she will give more consideration to her nutritional intake and potentially improve her brain health.

This is a monthly column published in magazine. Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found here.

Josh Buchanan, a UC Berkeley graduate, edits this column with an eye on grammar and scientific approach.

Dr. Nicola Wolfe is a neuroscience consultant for this column. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychopharmacology from Harvard University and has taught neuroscience courses for over 20 years at various universities.


  1. Nature, Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function, July 2008,
  2. Harvard Health Letter, Food for thought, May 2012

Throw the monkey, I mean the ball…


topic aphasia
region Broca’s area, Wernicke’s area


“Give me that banana,” Adam says and a moment later he is shocked at his own words. “Plate,” I mean plate,” he says.

His wife smiles. “It is just a small mistake. Don’t look so panicked.”

Adam has not told his wife about his grandfather. Would she believe him? After all, his grandfather was a world renowned writer. Nobody outside the family knew that he had aphasia when he died.

“There is a reason that I panicked…” He tells her about his grandfather.

“Wasn’t your grandfather writing until pretty late into his life?”

“Well, yes. He wrote well into his 70s. But he had a stroke when he was 73 and had a lot of trouble with word comprehension afterwards. He stopped writing and died when he was 75.”

Adam opens up his laptop and looks up the official definition at the website of National Aphasia Association and shows it to her:

Aphasia is an acquired communication disorder that impairs a person’s ability to process language, but does not affect intelligence. Aphasia impairs the ability to speak and understand others, and most people with aphasia experience difficulty reading and writing.aphasia

They also learn from the website that aphasia onset often occurs after a stroke and that more than 100,000 Americans have this disease.

“Is it there a genetic disposition?”

“They don’t know if it’s genetic, for sure, but I have read that there are some genetic mutations found in aphasia patients so, yes, there could be a genetic predisposition.”

She starts to ask him about his parents and then remembers that they had died in a plane crash. Adam has no brothers and sisters.  Adam is doing more research on the web. “Hmmm… it looks like people with other learning disabilities, like dyslexia, are also likely to get it.”

“Well, I have dyslexia but you don’t… I wonder what that means for the genes we pass on to children that we might have…” His wife says.

He shows her some images on his laptop and explains that the two primary regions in the brain that are affected by aphasia are Broca’s area, in the temporal lobe, and Wernicke’s area in the frontal lobe. Damages to either one or both of these regions can result in aphasia. There are many different types of aphasia depending on the location and degree of damage. According to the American Speech Language Hearing Association:

Some people with aphasia have trouble using words and sentences (expressive aphasia). Some have problems understanding others (receptive aphasia). Others with aphasia struggle with both using words and understanding (global aphasia).

Aphasia can cause problems with spoken language (talking and understanding) and written language (reading and writing). Typically, reading and writing are more impaired than talking or understanding.

Aphasia may be mild or severe. The severity of communication difficulties depends on the amount and location of the damage to the brain.

“Honey, I am sorry, maybe I should not have told you,” Adam says, when he sees the look of concern on her face.

“Adam, don’t worry so much. We’ll deal with whatever happens.” A few days later, however, she starts to worry. As a television anchorman, words are Adam’s passion and his livelihood. How would he react if he developed aphasia? What about it they decide to have children? Will they be predisposed to this disease? Maybe he should not have told her, she thinks. No, it’s much better to know. At least she would not be shocked and would have some inkling as to what’s going on if it ever happened to him.

This monthly column is published in magazine. Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at


  1. Mayo Clinic, Primary Progressive Aphasia, January 16, 2013,
  2. American Speech Language Hearing Association, What are some signs or symptoms of aphasia?
  3. National Aphasia Association, What Is Aphasia,

World of Words


topic words
regions Broca’s area, Wernicke’s Area, motor cortex, somatosensory cortex, and other regions


Wendy has to stay at home with her mother while her siblings go to Universal Studios with their father. She is recovering from flu and her parents want her to take it easy. She is unhappy about the situation and sulks as her siblings go off to have a day of fun.

But when her siblings return from their adventure, Wendy is flush with excitement and does not even notice them. Her mother has given her a story book set in India. Wendy lives in a small town in the US, near Los Angeles. She is 15-yrs-old and has just started to discover the cultures of other countries. A particular scene in one of the stories fires up her imagination “a rainbow of colors swirled in the air and she closed her eyes just before the red-yellow-blue-green-purple powders landed on her white shirt.”

Wendy is engrossed in the exotic scenes in the book and her brain is having an adventure that’s comparable to that of her siblings’. The meaning of the sentences, paragraphs, and the entire narrative, is parsed by language processing centers in the brain called Broca’s area in the frontal lobe and Wernicke’s area in the temporal lobe.  For a long time, neuroscientist understood that Broca’s area is used for reading aloud and for producing language and that Wernicke’s is used for comprehension. But, according to studies cited in the New York Times and study results published in an article in the Harvard Crimson, Broca’s area is used for comprehension also.

The processing does not end once the meaning of the words is parsed. Some of the other regions that are involved in further analysis are motor and somatosensory cortexes. These areas catapult the experience from beyond the wordsunderstanding of the story and characters into simulating the experience for the reader. It’s not exactly like the 4D simulation of Universal Studios, but it is much more individualized than the rides at the amusement park and can entertain longer depending on the length of the story being read.

Per neuroscience studies cited in the book Words to Brain and in a New York Times article, the actions of characters in Wendy’s book activate the motor cortex and the somatosensory cortex in the frontal lobe.  The motor cortex, as the name implies, sends signals to other parts of the body for the coordination of movements, like walking, dancing, eating, etc. The somatosensory cortex manages the sensations of touching. Other parts of the brain are also engaged in the process of simulating the reading experience and more research is being done to comprehend the details.

When Wendy’s imagination recreates the scenes and the experiences of the characters, her brain experiences the event as if the scene had occurred in front of her or perhaps even to her. As she reads about the Indian festival of holi, her mind’s eye sees the colorful powders falling, the smile people dresses in white, the colors landing on their clothes…The words on the page activate her brain in a similar manner that it would be activated had she been part of the story.

Neuroscientists are only beginning to study the biological basis of the power of reading but good storytellers have known how to exploit it for centuries. Most avid fiction readers are familiar with the experience of getting lost in a story filled with compelling emotions, evocative scenes, and hypnotic storyline. Of course, the success of a story in achieving movement and sensory activation of the brain is dependent on the skill of the writer in communicating the narrative to the reader. As the characters move around slyly and playfully, filling up water guns with colored water or their hands with colored powder, Wendy experiences the scene only as vibrantly as the author is able to recreate it.


This monthly column is published in magazine. Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at  this site.

Dr. Nicola Wolfe is a neuroscience consultant for this column. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychopharmacology from Harvard University and has taught neuroscience courses for over 20 years at various universities.


  1. The New York Times. Your Brain On Fiction, March 17, 2012.
  2. Blackburne, Livia. From Words to Brain (Can neuroscience teach you to be a better writer?).
  3. The Harvard Crimson. Broca’s Area May Have New Function, October 19, 2009.
  4. Pub Med. Broca’s area plays a role in syntactic processing during Chinese reading comprehension, April 2008.

Your brain on alcohol…


topic Alcohol
region most of the brain
chemicals gamma–aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamate


By the time Anand arrives at the nightclub, he is looking forward to a glass of single malt scotch. He walks in and immediately spots Matt.  “Your scotch is on its way,” Matt says. “You look like you need it.” “Thanks man.  My ex-wife, well, soon to be ex-wife decided today that she doesn’t want to sign the divorce papers.”

Anand’s scotch arrives and they drink in silence while looking around at the stage at the far end where a DJ is setting up. “We are going to get drunk and pick up some chicks and have a great time,” Matt says. That is exactly what they do. Well, almost.

Using alcohol to relieve anxiety is a common practice in many cultures. The reason that it works is because alcohol turns off many parts of the All Brain Regionsbrain, thus numbing their sensitivity. All regions of the brain are affected by alcohol, but some of the regions are affected more acutely than others. The cerebellum which is responsible for motor coordination such as balance and movement is implicated. The limbic system, in the temporal lobe, which handles emotions, consolidation of information, and basic physiological functions is also partly disabled. Parts of the frontal lobe responsible for memory and learning are short-circuited.

After their second glass of scotch, Anand and Matt walk up to the dance floor and approach two women who are dancing with each other.  Anand, who is usually quite shy, takes a hold of one of the girls’ hand and spins her around. She likes it, so he does it a few more times. At this point, the amount of alcohol is causing a lack of inhibition, thus making him feel comfortable dancing with strangers. But if he continues to drink, his current poise is likely to turn into clumsy, uncoordinated movements.

Stressed about his wife’s refusal to sign the divorce papers, Anand has sought easy relief. The alcohol in his bloodstream causes activation of gamma–aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitters which are the chemicals that shut off many parts of the brain. Thus, he is acting out of character because many of the circuits in his brain are essentially “not working” and reducing his normal inhibitions.

Time goes by. It’s 1 in the morning and Matt and Anand are still at the club. They have had several more drink. The girls are gone. They have no idea where the girls went because now they are clumsily and unsuccessfully trying to dance with other girls. Alcohol inhibits the activity of the glutamate neurotransmitters which causes neural excitement required for memory and learning. This will result in the possibility that Anand and Matt will not remember the people they met and some or all of their behavior. The degree to which a person is affected by alcohol varies by individual genetics, environmental shaping of the brain composition and also by the history of alcohol use and abuse.

When Anand gets home at 3a.m., he is not feeling well. He vomits after eating some crackers. He feels better and goes to sleep. Since alcohol increases the level of GABA receptors which turn off brain circuits, the increase is directly proportional to the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream. Thus an increase in bloodstream alcohol leads to turning off of more and more of the brain circuits until the neurons responsible for controlling breathing and heart rate start to become dysfunctional. This, obviously, can lead to death. Vomiting is the body’s’ way of protecting itself by getting rid of the toxic substance.

Chronic excessive alcohol consumption can lead to permanent neural degeneration.  One of the most well know of the alcohol induced diseases is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome characterized by memory loss, vision problems, physical coordination problems and other mental deficiencies. Some of the damage can be fixed by restoring the thiamine (vitamin B1) levels that are lost via alcohol consumption, but research does not generally support the regeneration of lost nerve cells. The amount of damage varies from person to person and is a factor of genetics, nutrition, and other personal environmental factors.

Drinking alcohol is not necessarily bad for your brain. But irresponsible chronic overindulgence can cause permanent irreversible damage to the most precious part of the human body.  A single overdose can kill you.


February:  how do written words affect the brain?

This monthly column is published in magazine. Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at

Dr. Nicola Wolfe is a neuroscience consultant for this column. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychopharmacology from Harvard University and has taught neuroscience courses for over 20 years at various universities.


  1. Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Penguin Group.
  2. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ National Institute On Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism,