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



“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.

Stop, thief!


topic Anger
organ amygdala
chemicals adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin


The vibrant colors of the murals in Clarion Alley in San Francisco awaken my senses. The twilight is perfect for capturing the mood via photographs.

I finish planning a composition and am about to click when a man on a bike rides by and snatches the camera from my hand. For a few split seconds, I do not comprehend or accept what has just happened. Then I start to scream: He stole my camera! He stole my camera!

I feel violated. I have several months of photographs in that camera. My camera!

I run after him, screaming, as he turns right onto Mission Street. I realize that I have lost my photos and will not be getting them back but I am unable to accept this fact. I continue to scream. Then a strange and unexpected series of events occur.

The man who has stolen my camera comes back into the alley on foot. He holds up the camera as if he is going to give it back to me. I reach for it, unsure as to what is going on. He runs with the camera tightly held within his large hand. What happened to his bicycle, I wonder but I do not have time to consider this. He is running now in the opposite direction from Mission and towards Valencia Street. He is running towards the Mission Police Station! I doubt that he realizes this, however.

I start screaming at the top of my lungs and run after him. I am not saying anything this time. I am simply making a deep guttural sound, primitive language-independent screams of distress.

A policeman on a bike rides by me and asks what happened. He is headed from Mission to Valencia, the same direction as the thief. I tell him and he rides after the thief, who has already disappeared around the corner on Valencia. Another policeman on a bike also chases after the thief. I wonder if this might be why the thief has abandoned his bike, to perhaps find a route that does not allow a bike passage. Or, perhaps his bike is stolen also.

Then I hear sirens.

I slow down and start walking instead of running. I am out of breath and feeling calmer. A group of people walk towards me “You are lucky, they got him,” one of them says.

Why do I react with so much aggression and without any consideration for my safety?

Surprise or fear can trigger an adrenaline rush. The quantity of the adrenaline released and thus the degree of reaction is determined by chemical factors. A low quantity of the “happy” neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in the brain triggers a higher degree of adrenaline production. In other words, the less happy the brain, the higher the level of adrenaline it produces.

When the thief ripped the camera from my hand, my adrenaline level probably shot up. The level of adrenaline might have been exacerbated even further by the fact that I was in an unhappy mood. I had left my apartment a few hours ago in an angry mood because I was upset with my boyfriend. This would have resulted in a depletion of dopamine and serotonin.

In a different state of mind, would I have screamed less and potentially let the thief get away? Or would I have not made the primitive guttural sounds that, in retrospect, seem to be an over-reaction to the loss of some photos, as precious as they might have been.

Low dopamine and serotonin and high adrenaline do not activate a response but only contribute to the activation. The response is activated in the limbic system specifically in the amygdala. The amygdala is one of the major organs responsible for the perception of threat and for triggering an emotional response. It can hijack the potentially rational responses from other parts of the brain and cause irrational reactions. In my case, I did not consider my own safety because I was furious that my personal space and property had been violated.

Later that day, when I am in the Police Station talking into a tape recorder and going through the story of what has happened, the police inspector asks me if I want to press charges.

“It’s wrong to steal and he should be punished. But he must have been really desperate to want to steal a camera,” my thoughts tumble out of my mouth. I decide not to press charges. Technically, it is not my decision because the district attorney will press charges anyway because the man was arrested. I did not know this at the time, however, and despite my conflict, I made a decision to not punish the thief any more than he had already been punished.

Perhaps I was being kinder because the dopamine and serotonin levels in my brain had surged back up when I found out that justice had been done and that I would get my camera back. Also, my boyfriend came to the police station and held my hand and kept me company while the inspector was talking to me. His presence might have contributed to the raised levels of the “feel good” hormones.

This is all hypothetical, of course, based on my knowledge of neuroscience and research on the neuropathy of anger. I would have had to be hooked up to an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imager) to prove my hypothesis about the actions of the amygdala and the levels of adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine in my brain. Nonetheless, it is fun to try to guess the biological triggers for my actions when confronted with a “fight or flight” situation.


Dr. Goulston, Mark,Usable Insight, The Neuroscience of Anger, Monday, April 18th, 2011,

© Copyright Leena Prasad 2011. All rights reserved.

May 2012: bi-polar

Ben has disappeared suddenly and his girlfriend Paula is feeling anxious. He has sent an email, however, to say that he is okay and will get in touch with her soon. She calls up Ben’s sister Sonia to try to understand what’s going on with him. Read more at Whose Brain Is It? column published in Synchronous Chaos magazine.

mirror mirror


topic mirror neurons
region premotor cortex


I catch a glimpse of rice and mackerel. She is holding a small piece in-between her thumb and index finger. That’s the authentic way of eating sushi, instead of using chopsticks, I think.

But something else happens in my mind also. My friend and I have just been seated at the Japanese restaurant and have not even looked at the menu. Yet I can almost taste the saba (rice and mackerel) and memories of the sour salty taste make my mouth water. I recall a class lecture from my neuroscience class about mirror neurons.

I am not in the medical profession but studied artificial intelligence as part of my computer science curriculum and later worked in the field. This led to an interest in neuroscience. I use my graduate school training as a journalist to research and explore the brain using what I learned in the introductory neuroscience class as a basic foundation for my journey.

But, this is not a story about me or about sushi. It’s about specific neurons in my brain and in yours – nerve cells that help us connect to each other’s experiences. These neurons are helping to answer questions ranging from feeling hungry while watching someone else eat to feeling the pain of another person to the excitement felt by sport audiences, to learning by watching someone do something.

When I see the saba, the occipital lobe in the back of the brain, processes the visual information. The hippocampus and other parts of the brain retrieve the memory of my own experiences with saba. When I eat the sushi, neurons in the premotor cortex, in the frontal lobe of the brain, enable me to use my fingers to pick up the sushi, bring it to my mouth, and to eat it. Every single action, from the details of the movement of my arms and fingers to the complexities of biting and chewing are handled by the premotor nerve cells.

But if I am not eating the rice and mackerel myself, how is it that my mouth waters as if I can taste the sushi?

As human beings, most of us (excluding people with autism and other brain related diseases) understand empathy. Now, neuroscientists are exploring the coding of empathy within our brain. They have discovered nerve cells which mirror the actions of other people as if we are experiencing what we see. These neurons reside in the premotor cortex along with the premotor neurons which cause motor reflexes. Mirror neurons are a special subset of the premotor neurons and they fire whether we perform an action ourselves or watch others perform the action.

Mirror neurons were discovered by researchers in Parma, Italy in 1992. The scientists had placed electrodes in the brain of a monkey to record and study nerve cell activity by amplifying the sounds made inside the brain when a neuron fires. By chance, they heard the same set of premotor neurons fire off both when the monkey was picking up a peanut and also when the monkey was just watching someone else pick up a peanut. Similar experiments were repeated in monkeys and humans by several follow-up studies conducted by the scientists at Parma and by other scientists around the world.

“I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology,” says Dr. Vilayanur Subramanian Ramachandran, a Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Neurosciences Graduate Program at the University of California, San Diego. In a recent TED lecture entitled “The neurons that shaped civilization” Dr. Ramachandran theorizes that a lot of human learning, and thus evolution, probably speeded up due to mirror neurons.

There are two types of mirror neurons, according to Dr. Christian Keysers, a Professor at Netherlands’ largest medical faculty, the University Medical Center in Groningen. The two types are: strictly congruent and broadly congruent. The strictly congruent neurons are activated for very specific familiar actions. So, when I watch someone eat saba or eat it myself, I’m using strictly congruent neurons. The broadly congruent neurons are activated for actions that might be unfamiliar to me. For example, if I start taking classes in auto repair, I would be using broadly congruent neurons since I do not know much about this topic.

This is an exciting discovery. I found many articles and books and videos on the topic. A lot of the current research is speculation and excitement with a smattering of data to backup the assertions. There are ongoing discussions and experiments to locate mirror neurons in other parts of the brain, in addition to those in the premotor cortex. This trendy subject has been used to explain a range of behavioral phenomena such as language learning, empathy, and lack of emotional intelligence in autism. I look forward to learning more about these neurons as scientists gather more data and develop theories on how the knowledge can be used to understand and fine-tune human behavior. For now, at least I understand why I can taste the sushi by just looking at someone else put it in her mouth.


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.


Ramachandran. Vilayanur Subramanian. Ph.D. The neurons that shaped civilization: VS Ramachandran. TED Talk, January 4, 2010

Keysers, Christian, Ph.D. The Empathic Brain. Social Brain Press, 2011

Do the dance


topic Dance
region precuneus


“Are you nervous at all?” Sanjay says.

“Excited,” Dana responds to her husband. “Yes, nervous, but with excitement.”

She is having her brain examined today. Well, not exactly examined, but observed by a method called Positron-Emission Tomography (PET scan) which is used to measure changes in cerebral blood flow as a result of brain activity.

“It’s not too late for you to take part in this also, you know.”

“No, no, I’d rather watch.”

Since her decision to participate in the study, they have been reading up on how the brain controls muscular movements.  There is a region towards the back of the brain, appropriately called the posterior parietal cortex, which takes visual information as input and translates it into motor commands. These commands travel through a pipeline of several brain regions to the primary motor cortex, a region that sends neural impulses to the spinal cord resulting in muscle contractions.

Later that afternoon, Dana dresses as if she’s going out dancing.

“Does my primary motor cortex look ready for action?”

“I don’t know but I think my posterior parietal cortex is getting activated.” Her husband winks at her.

She is wearing a flowing jade silk skirt that comes up just above her knee, a silk shirt with just the amount of cleavage that her husband likes, and pencil heels. She has been told that she should prepare for tango dancing as if she was going out to a nightclub and not to a science lab.

Dana and Sanjay have been dancing for many years now. They won an amateur tango contest last year which is what brought them the attention that had led to her participation in this experiment.

When they arrive at the place where the study is to be conducted, she looks around for a dance floor, perhaps a live band. The place looks like an office with a few desks and computers. Through an open door, she sees some large machines. The professor, Dr. D, arrives soon and explains the procedure to her.

“So, I, uh, I’ll be lying down the whole time,” she says. How can they study tango dancing if she will be lying down the entire time? She looks over at Sanjay and he looks as skeptical as she feels.

Dr. D laughs. “I know it sounds very strange.”

“I thought someone said that I will be moving my legs, I mean, I was told to dress for dancing.”

“Yes, yes, the machine is designed so that there is a surface area for moving your legs as if you are dancing. That’s the idea, to watch what’s happening in your brain as your legs move to the music.”

Dana does not look convinced. But she has committed to this, trusts the scientist, and is curious about the outcome. She follows the professor to a room with a large intimidating machine. She has seen these machines on television. People usually lie down in them with their head placed inside the machine. The only difference is that this particular machine actually has an inclined bottom surface where here legs would rest.

“That surface is for you to move your legs,” Dr. D says. “You’ll be listening to tango music through headsets.”

As Dana moves her legs in rhythm to the tango music, sensory organs in her leg muscles will pass on data to the brain’ in terms of the location and orientation of her muscles. The brain will use this information to update the motor commands that it sends back to the muscles. Scientists understand the neural mechanisms of basic motor functions. They are curious, however, to observe how these same mechanisms scale up to handle the complexity of the motions of dance.

In a study at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, scientists used PET scans to observe the brains of five male and five female tango dancers in an experiment that occurred as described for the fictional character Dana.

Once Dana is lying inside the scanner with her head immobilized, she is asked to execute the basic salida step of the Argentine tango as she hears the music through her headset. By restricting the legs to motions where the body could not actually move in space, the scientist were able to limit the study to the exact movement of the leg muscles without having to worry about the extra movements of the entire body moving from one location to another.

Sanjay is not allowed to be in the lab so he is unable to watch the results but the professor explains what he and his colleagues saw in the brains of Dana and the other participants.

“We were able to confirm a hypothesis about the parietal lobe,” he said. “That’s the area in the back part of your head.”

“That’s such a large area,” Dana says. “Was there a specific region that you were observing?”

“Yes, yes, the hypothesis is that the brain contains a representative image of the body in a specific area called the precuneus. This representation helps the precuneus to choreograph the movements of the muscles, with the help of other parts of the brain. Of course, we can’t exactly see the representation in the precuneus but we can see blood flow activity in the area with a PET scan.”

“So more blood flow means more activity?” Sanjay says.

“Yes. And the tango dancing created a high level of activity in this region.”

“What’s name of the region, again?” Dana asks.

“Precuneus. You can google it to see the location and the size.”

“But what’s the point of this study,” Sanjay says. “It’s just curiosity or does it provide some answers?’

“Well, possibly. This area is one of the least studied areas of the brain so the more we know about it, the better we can use the knowledge.”

“We were asked to do the steps with and without music. What was the reason for that?”

“Very good question. That was to subtract the affect of music on the brain and to confirm that the precuneus is still activated.”

As they are driving  home, Dana searches for precuneus on her iPhone and reads out parts of the Wikipedia definition to her husband:

The precuneus is…involved with episodic memory, visuospatial processing, reflections upon self, and aspects of consciousness.

“Precuneus,” Sanjay says. “Sounds like it’s a busy part of the brain.”

“Tango dancing will never be the same for me again.”

“Well, it will be, except now the precuneus will be helping to choreograph the dancing and also be aware of itself while you are dancing.”


Please send feedback and suggestions for future columns to Go to for links to past columns and to for Leena’s writing portfolio. Leena has a journalism degree from Stanford University.


Brown, Steven & Parsons, Lawrence M. “The Neuroscience of Dance.” Scientific American July 2008:78-83. Print.

Phil’s Trip


topic Psilocybin (“magic mushroom”)
region hippocampus, posterior cingulate. medial prefrontal cortex


Phil is moving slowly through the jungle. Is it a jungle or a banana plantation? All he sees are the tall and thick banana leaves. And why is he moving so slowly. He looks down. He is riding an animal. A bright orange animal.  Orange? That is strange. It lifts its long trunk and makes a sound.

An elephant! He is riding an elephant. What the fuck? Where is he? He must have said something out loud because a voice answers back.

Relax Phil. Enjoy the ride.

He recognizes the voice. It is his friend Lucy. Her voice calms him down. Everything must be okay.

He starts to do as she suggests and concentrates on enjoying the ride. It is pleasant really, so smooth. Elephants are gentle animals, he recalls from the Nature show he saw with Lucy a few weeks ago.

He feels a desire to lie down.

Is it okay to lie down, he says to Lucy.

Yes, you are in the backseat of car, she says. Albert is driving. He is taking us to Dolores Park.

Oh, he is in a car. Not on an elephant. The “banana” leaves are actually the palm trees along Dolores Street. The orange elephant is Lucy’s shawl sprawled on the seat near him. He was hallucinating.

It will be easier in Dolores Park, Lucy says. Since Albert lives nearby you can use his restroom or we can go to his place if you need to lie down or something.

Yes, it would be nice to be in nature. How long has it been now? He and Lucy had started the “journey” in the morning, at Lucy’s apartment in Bernal Heights. Dolores Park is not that far away from Lucy’s house. Why is it taking so long to get there?

He and Lucy are holding Albert’s hands. No. It’s Albert who is holding their hands. Unlike them, Albert is sober and is their guide. It’s his job to make sure that they are safe both physically and emotionally.

Phil stops to look at a purplish blue flower. He knows the street and the neighborhood fairly well and remembers seeing this flower before. But now he feels compelled to observe it more intimately. It’s so beautiful. He wants to gaze at every intricate detail.

Come on Phil. You have been staring at the flower for more than ten minutes now. We should head down to the park. It’s Albert, urging them on.

But look how beautiful it is, how perfect. Phil doesn’t want to move.  Albert puts a firm hand on his shoulder and starts to guide him down the steep hill to the park.

Phil stops at the corner of Church and 20th to admire the cityscape. He has seen this view countless times yet he feels as if he is seeing it for the first time.  The three of them sit down near the corner, at the crest of a hill.

Phil hears a jazz band playing not too far from where they are sitting. He looks at the band and can see the music coming towards him in beautiful improvised notes. He can see the music. How strange, he thinks.

Phil is not dreaming. He is fully conscious and will remember all the details of his experiences later when the effect of the Magic Mushrooms wears off from his system.  Magic Mushroom is a popular term for a wide variety of mushrooms that contain psilocybin, a chemical that is known to produce hallucinations and other effects.

Psilocybin is not addictive. Probably because the effects last for several hours and the experience is not all thrills and games and there is potential for dangerous side effects. Products that contain psilocybin, including the “magic” mushroom family and the synthetic drug LSD, are Schedule I illegal drugs in the United States because of the possibility of dangerous side effects.

On the other hand, psilocybin has potential benefits which researchers around the world have been studying. In 2010, scientists at Johns Hopkins conducted an experiment to examine the affect of psilocybin on cancer patients. Many patients reported relief from depression and long-term improvements in their lifestyle. One patient, Dr. Martin, rated the experience as “among the most meaningful events of his life.”

“Under the influences of hallucinogens, individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states before the time of their actual physical demise, and return with a new perspective and profound acceptance of the life constant: change.” This statement was made by Dr. Charles S. Grob who conducted an identical study at UCLA on cancer patients. He noted that psilocybin helps lessen the intensity of fear, panic, and depression in terminally ill patients.

Phil is not terminally ill and does not have any mental disorders. Psilocybin or any other hallucinogens are also not recommended for people with mental illness because the impact on a disturbed mind cannot be measured or controlled and could lead to serious consequences. The formal studies are conducted in regulated lab environments within the supervision of medical professionals. Phil is being guided by his friends Albert and Lucy who are experienced users of the drug. They are ensuring that his experiences stay within a “safe” zone.

But what’s going on in Phil’s mind? A lot of what’s happening is a mystery but scientists have some clue. While people often speak of psychedelic experiences as something that expands their consciousness, the fact is that psilocybin reduces blood flow in the brain. Another common experience is that of feeling more connected with nature and other people. Ironically, during the hallucinations, critical areas of perception and cognition actually show a decreased level of connectivity. This explains, however, as to why depression can be lowered by this drug. People in the throes of depression also suffer from an overactive mind. Thus, slowing down the brain can slow down this increased activity and produce a calmer frame of mind. Extrapolating from this, it makes sense for people who are not depressed to also feel happier under the influence.

This explanation of lower activity in the brain due to reduction in blood flow and connectivity was discovered in an experiment by lead researcher Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College London. His team used functional MRI brain scans to observe the brain activity of thirty volunteer participants while they were under the influence of psilocybin. The researchers measured the blood flow in half the patients and in the in the other half, they measured the connectivity among different brain regions. In both cases, the posterior cingulate and the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain were affected. There was less blood flow in these areas and the connectivity between these regions and the hippocampus was reduced. In addition, the thalamus had less blood flow also.

What does this mean?

“Changes in function in the posterior cingulate in particular are associated with changes in consciousness,” per Robin Carhart-Harris.  Both the posterior cingulate and medial prefrontal cortex are thought to be involved in functions related to self-awareness.

The thalamus regulates many functions of the brain so less blood flow to this region means less processing across the different regions.

The hippocampus plays a central role in consolidating short term memory to long-term storage. More studies will be needed to determine the implication of reduced connectivity between the hippocampus, the posterior cingulate and the medial prefrontal cortex.

While more experiments are required to fully document the details of what happens to a brain on psilocybin, scientists have discovered that the molecular structure of psilocybin is similar to the neurotransmitter serotonin which regulates mood. Thus psilocybin binds to the some of the same neuron receptors as serotonin and produces similar results. They are many legal prescription drugs that regulate serotonin. As per Franz Vollenweider of the Psychiatric University Hospital Zurich, it’s the long-term effects of psilocybin that are important not just the temporary altered states of participants. Even though brain connectivity is reduced in the short term, the long-term effect of the drug is to affect neural growth and connectivity, according to Vollenweider.

Other brain changes that are influenced by psilocybin are still under study and the Schedule I status of this drug complicates the research. It would be helpful to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how the brain is physiologically affected by this chemical but scientists are also studying other benefits. For example, a study by Harvard researchers Dr. R. Andrew Sewell and Dr. John H. Halpern, concluded that psilocybin is useful in reducing cluster headaches. “Our observations suggest that psilocybin and LSD may be effective in treating cluster attacks, possibly by a mechanism that is unrelated to their hallucinogenic properties. This report should not be misinterpreted as an endorsement of the use of illegal substances for self-treatment of cluster headaches.”

Phil is taking a risk in experimenting with something that is illegal and potentially dangerous. But, on the other hand, many patients in the Johns Hopkins and the UCLA studies said that their psilocybin experience was one of the most memorable and valuable events of their lives. It will probably be a while before psilocybin is used in a legal, guided, and safe environment to help people experience the levity that is often the affect of this drug. Perhaps it might become possible to safely “tune out” and feel happier and more connected to the universe. After all, there are many legal drugs like Prozac and Zoloft that have similar characteristics as psilocybin and help improve people’s lives.



Charles S. Grob, MD, et. all. “Pilot Study of Psilocybin Treatment for Anxiety in Patients With Advanced-Stage Cancer.”Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(1):71-78. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2010.116

Tierney, John. “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again.” New York Times 11 April 2010. <>

Sewell, Dr. R. Andrew MD, Halpern, Dr. John H. MD. “Response of cluster headache to psilocybin and LSD.” Neurology. June 27, 2006 66:1920-1922

Brauser, Deborah, “Psychedelic Drugs May Reduce Symptoms of Depression, Anxiety, and OCD”, 25 August 2010.  <>

Chai Tea


topic Laughter
region mesolimbic
chemicals dopamine


“Chai tea,” Tina says to the woman behind the counter.

Hema tries to suppress a chuckle.

“What’s so funny?” Tina asks.

“Nothing. It won’t be funny to you.”

“Try me, anyway.”

“Well chai in hindi means tea.”

“Oh,” Tina says and giggles. “Yeah, we like to appropriate other cultures words without considering what it means.”

“I don’t really care. But it does sound funny. I’ll have some tea tea please.”

“What makes something funny?” Hema says, as they sit down at a table wither their drinks.

“Well, maybe it has to do with something absurd. Like tea tea.”

They sip their drinks, considering the question.

“You know, I read somewhere that if a certain part of the brain is touched, it can cause laughter.”

“You mean, like in the inside, by a brain surgeon?”

“Yes, yes, during surgery, or when they are examining the brain.”

“So, the humor circuits are hardwired? I guess that makes sense. Everything is hardwired, I suppose.”

Hema could be describing the case reported in Nature magazine by neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried of University of California at Los Angeles. Fried made an accidental discovery while studying the brain of an epileptic patient, a 16-year-old girl. He was trying to diagnose the reason for her seizures by using an electric probe on her brain. Every once in a while, the girl would start laughing for no apparent reason. He realized that when the probe touched a specific area in her left frontal lobe she would laugh. If he increased the electric current, the girl would laugh with more intensity.

Much of research on humor has been done on brain abnormalities that cause inappropriate laughter. It is difficult to study “normal” humor because the definition of humor varies. But, researchers can look at the result of humor, i.e., how the laughter resonates within the brain circuits. Excluding laughter caused by tickling, laughing gas, or simply as social contagion, some recent studies examine the result of laughter on a healthy human brain as it responds to everyday humor.

The area that Fried was touching inside the 16-year-old girl’s brain is less than an inch-square and it’s called the supplementary motor area. In a study cited in the Brain journal, a PET scan revealed an increase in the blood flow in the supplementary motor area while subjects responded to humorous film clips.

“Do you think women laugh more than men?” Hema says.

“Hmmm… I’m tempted to say, probably yes, but I wonder if anyone has actually studied something like that?”

The answer is not as simple as per a study cited in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It’s not the quantity of laughter but the qualitative differences in the integration of the response in the male versus the female brain. A group of 10 men and 10 women were shown a series of cartoons and asked to rate the cartoons as being funny or not. An fMRI scan showed that the left prefrontal cortex was activated more in the women than the men for the cartoons that both genders found to be funny.

“Whatever happens in the brain, I’ve read that laughing is good for you,” Tina says.

“Sure, it certainly feels good.”

Laughter produces generous release of the feel good hormone dopamine and activates the reward circuits of the brain, the mesolimbic region. This was also discovered by the fMRI scan in the experiment that evaluated the differences in gender-based reactions to funny cartoons.
“We now have laboratory evidence that mirthful laughter stimulates most of the major physiologic systems of the body,” says William Fry, M.D., a Stanford University psychiatrist. He says that twenty seconds of laughter, real or fake, can increase the heart rate for a few minutes. Fry also says that laughter can potentially reduce the risk of heart attacks by reducing tension, stress, and anger and that it may even help in making people less susceptible to some diseases by warding off depression.
Yes, laughing feels good. More studies are required to map the exact brain areas complicit in causing this response. But, we can rest assured that a little laugher is indeed a “good medicine.”


B. Wild (2003). Neural correlates of laughter and humour, Brain, 126 (10), 2121-2138 DOI: 10.1093/brain/awg226

E. Azim (2005). Sex differences in brain activation elicited by humor Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102 (45), 16496-16501 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0408456102

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.

We got sold out


topic Money & Fear


Banks got bailed out
We got sold out!

Banks got bailed out
We got sold out!

Banks got bailed out
We got sold out!

Frida rolls down her car window. Hundreds of people are chanting, moving towards her. Not exactly towards her but she’s in a car going east on Mission Street and they are walking in the opposite lane. Motor vehicle traffic is at a standstill.

Ah, the Wall Street occupation of New York City has moved here, she thinks.

Whose streets?
Our Streets!

Whose streets?
Our Streets!

Whose streets?
Our Streets!

The people in the street chant, as if responding to her thoughts. She meets the gaze of one of the protestors. Suddenly she feels uncomfortable in her black 2011 BMW.

She panics. Frida is reacting to what she perceives as a threat to her current lifestyle, as if the people protesting on the street are going to take away what she has worked hard to achieve.

Her mind flashes back to a decade ago. Her college scholarship funding has fallen through. Her single mom works two jobs and does not have the money to pay the high tuition and expenses for the private college that she plans to attend. Frida spends the next two years working and taking out a loan to pay for college. Life at college is difficult. She is older than the other students and doesn’t have the free-flowing funds that they seem to have. Her social life is limited. Instead of enjoying college life, she is anxious to graduate with a business degree and start a new life, hopefully with one of the top business-consulting firms.

Her heart is beating faster. Her hands are clammy as she holds the steering wheel tighter.

Fear is a natural reaction to the potential threat to one’s safety. It can cause the fight or flight response leading to anxiety. This is what is happening to Frida.

The perception of danger is handled by many parts of the brain but the amygdala, a part of the limbic system of the brain, is the chief operator in initiating the fight or flight response. In Frida’s situation, fear perception leads the amygdala to send a danger message to the anterior nucleus of the hypothalamus, another part of the limbic system.

The hypothalamus manages a wide range of basic biological functions and metabolic reactions. For Frida, it initiates a chain reaction of chemicals which leads to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system produces a surge of the hormone adrenaline. Frida’s heart is racing and her hands are clammy. This tension is caused by the excess adrenaline in her bloodstream.

She notices a large sign “We are the 99%.”

Frida’s hands relax on the steering wheel. She realizes that she is also in the ninety-nine percentage. This is not about semi-wealthy people like herself but about the top one percentage who own a majority of the wealth in the United States. She takes a deep breath and starts to calm down. The level of adrenaline in her bloodstream is not going up anymore. She turns on the radio and flips to her favorite classical music station. The music distracts her from here stress and sympathetic arousal, helping her to access other brain regions to restore a non-stressful state.

Links to past columns are available at and Leena’s writing portfolio is available at Leena  has a journalism degree from Stanford University.

Dr. Nicola Wolfe is the 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.

References for this article: Dr. Wolfe’s Neuroscience class at Berkeley extension,,