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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).

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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 SynchChaos.com magazine and Leena is looking for other syndication opportunities. Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at FishRidingABike.com. 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.

References:

  1. Vickers, Andrew J., et all, Acupuncture for Chronic Pain, JAMA Internal Medicine, http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1357513, Oct 2012
  2. Goldman, Nanna., et all, Adenosine A1 receptors mediate local anti-nociceptive effects of acupuncture, Nature Neurosicence, http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v13/n7/full/nn.2562.html, 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.

Harold’s Elephants

 

topic joy
organ limbic system
chemicals dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin, serotonin, cortisol

The envelope has been lying on his desk for two days. Harold is unable to open it. There is too much at stake. The words inside that envelope will change his life.

It’s too thin, Harold thinks. It must be a rejection letter. That would mean that he’d have to go back to his life as a chef. He likes cooking but after ten years, he has become bored of doing it for a living. He took a five year break to try making a living as a sculptor. These five have been the best years of his life. He doesn’t want to stop but he has used up all his savings. Harold is engaged to be married and wants to start a family soon. He is 41 years old and wants to have a stable career soon, one way or another. This is his last chance to be financially stable while living his passion.

Harold opens the envelope.

Congratulation, it says. Harold stares. He reads and read again. “Congratulations. We would like to hire you to design and sculpt the elephant sculpture for the newest branch of our restaurant. You will also be designing unique sculptures for each one of our 21 restaurants worldwide.” There are instructions on going to a website to complete the paperwork.

Harold is too shocked to react. He hears the front door open. His fiancée walks in. She is sweating from her daily jog and is heading for the bathroom when he leaps up to go talk to her. He gushes out the news. He says it so fast that she has to ask him to repeat himself.

There are chemical activities in Harold’s brain causing his happiness. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters because they transmit signals amongst the brain’s neurons. The primary neurotransmitters spurting in Harold’s brain is dopamine and serotonin. The brain spurts dopamine when it gets what it wants. It secretes serotonin when it feels a sense of pride.

His fiancée is also happy. In addition to dopamine, her brain is spurting endorphin from the runner’s high that she has just had. It is possible that she might also be releasing serotonin via association with someone who has just established a job which will ensure survival related safety and security for her.

As mentioned in the book Meet Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Endorphin, Oxytocin, Serotonin, Dr. Loretta Breuning talks about a fourth chemical, oxytocin. This is the neurotransmitter that Harold and his fiancée’s brains secrete on a consistent basis. Oxytocin is released as a part of developing a trust based relationship with another human being. Sexual intimacy and other bonding activities, like touching, also cause a spike in oxytocin levels. Harold and his fiancée have a healthy level of oxytocin in their system because they live together within the framework of a trusting relationship.

Harold and his fiancée are both experiencing a burst of many happy chemicals and thus a burst of joy. But the happy chemicals exploding in their brains are not all the same, so their happiness level is not exactly the same.

Earlier in the day, while Harold was teetering on the verge of opening the envelope, his brain was probably spiking with cortisol, a chemical produced by the brain when it feels stressed. His cortisol level is down but not completely gone and he has no reason to have endorphin in his system. His fiancée has endorphin in her system but no reason to have cortisol. They both have dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin circulating around. The levels of the chemical might be higher in Harold’s system because he is directly affected by the news. Without sophisticated machines, it is not easy to say who is happier, but it’s easier to guess the comparative levels of chemicals in each person’s neural circuits.

“Your brain is always seeking ways to get more serotonin without losing oxytocin or increasing cortisol,” says Dr. Breuning in her book. The brain does not want cortisol, the “unhappy” drug. Everyday life, of course, creates spurts of cortisol, and the brain struggles to lower the level. It is always trying to maximize its happy drugs and minimize the unhappy ones. But sometimes it has to negotiate. For example, in order to secure oxytocin from a bonding relationship, e.g., friendship, the brain might have to sacrifice serotonin that comes from pride. It needs to calculate whether the serotonin sacrifice is worth the oxytocin gain.

All these chemicals are managed by the brain’s limbic system, also known as the reptilian brain. The limbic system consists of the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and other parts. All mammals have a limbic system and thus the ability to secrete these happy hormones. From an evolutionary perspective, these chemicals serve as a reward mechanism to train the brain. For example, romantic love and sexual intercourse produce dopamine and oxytocin. This trains the mind to seek love and sex and thus contribute to the propagation and survival of the species. Success at a job can produce serotonin and thus train the brain to seek more success and thus secure financial security required for survival. Exercise produces pain, which results in endorphin production. The pain is masked by the endorphins and the body is trained to seek more exercise, thus equipping the body with better survival mechanism.

Since the theory of evolution is widely accepted and relatively well understood in scientific circles, it seems to have become fashionable to explain the brain’s chemical secretions in terms of survival mechanisms. The explanations seem to fit and make sense, but human beings are different than other mammals and not necessarily at the mercy of evolution. In Harold’s example, if he feels stressed while designing the elephant structure, he can reduce the cortisol level in his brain by seeking his fiancée’s company, which could increase the oxytocin level. Or he can go for a run to increase the endorphin levels. He can also visualize what it would be like to see his sculptor inside the restaurant which could help increase the serotonin. Another option would be to increase his dopamine level by treating himself to a good meal or to something else that he wants. The more Harold knows about how the neurotransmitter can help him maintain a joyful life, the better he can manage them to negotiate happiness.


References:

1. Breuning, Loretta Graziano (2012-02-14). Meet Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Endorphin, Oxytocin, Serotonin. System Integrity Press.

2. Ratey, John J. MD. A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theatres of the Brain. Random House, Inc.

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.


References:

Dr. Goulston, Mark,Usable Insight, The Neuroscience of Anger, Monday, April 18th, 2011, http://markgoulston.com/usable-insight-the-neuroscience-of-anger/

© Copyright Leena Prasad 2011. All rights reserved.

feel good

 

topic love
chemicals dopamine, serotonin

 

Lou has lost weight. He has dark circles under his eyes from insufficient sleep but does not look tired and appears to be happy. He is focused at work and getting a lot done. He is also spending more time on his guitar and writing a new song almost every week.

A friend that Lou had not seen for a while wonders if Lou has slipped back into his cocaine habit. The dopamine level in Lou’s brain is consistently high these days.Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced by the brain and plays a starring role within the pleasure circuits of the human mind.  Cocaine increases the level of dopamine in the brain resulting in feelings of happiness, improved focus, increased energy as well as lower needs for food and sleep.

Lou’s mother, who sees him sporadically, worries that he has developed a disorder because he is displaying new behavior patterns.  He spends a lot of time in his childhood room ordering and re-ordering things.  He either taps his foot constantly when sitting down or paces back and forth in the living room when talking to her. She has not said anything because he also seems to be happier than usual and she wonders if the changes might be the effect of his recent job promotion.

His mother reads a lot of popular psychology articles and thinks that he might have a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Can you guess what is going on in Lou’s brain?

Lou is not taking cocaine.

Lou does not have OCD but it might be difficult to discern if a doctor only looks at the serotonin level in his brain. A psychiatrist at the University of Pisa, Dr. Donatella Marazziti, observed twenty couples who had been in love for six months or less. She discovered that the serotonin level of these lovers were similar to people who had OCD.  This is not scientifically conclusive evidence, but the story has become popular on the internet.

Lou’s brain looks like the brain of someone in love or more accurately, it is the brain of someone experiencing strong romantic and sexual attraction beyond lust. It is being powered by biological forces that have evolved over millions of years to provide survival strategies. Dopamine surge and serotonin depletion are just two of the current hormonal changes in his brain. There are several other chemicals dances occurring in his mind.

Lou is in the second stage of love.

There are many stages of love and each one consists of a complimentary chemical component. The initial stage of lust is managed by several chemicals but primarily by the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen, in both men and women. The next stage, Lou’s stage, is the romantic feedback loop where positive or negative responses from the romantic partner cause a change in levels.

If things works out for Lou, his body will get off the chemical roller-coaster and revert back to its normal level of the second stage chemical cocktails. If unsuccessful, the ex-lovers will experience a crash similar to those experienced by cocaine addicts when they try to quit.

The emotional attachment hormone, oxytocin, is released during orgasm in both men and women and starts to play a more prominent role as the attraction chemicals begin to level off and the lovers enter the next stage of romance. There is another hormone, vassopresin, which is released during sexual intercourse. It is naturally produced to regulate the retention of water within the body but the additional levels of this chemical might be responsible for the desire for monogamy in men. A higher level of vassopresin has shown to cause fidelity in prairie voles but a similar definitive corroboration has not been made in human beings.

The second stage of love can be as disturbing as a cocaine habit and OCD. Fortunately there’s the hope that as the relationship progresses, oxytocin in the brain will help lead to a happy, but calmer, non-manic state. There are, of course, people who become addicted to the rush of the powerful attraction stage and choose to repeat the cycle, just like a cocaine addict, instead of opting out to the more peaceful alternative.

Are the chemicals choosing our life for us or are our choices invoking the chemicals? The answer is probably not a simple equation but a continuous circular movement with no distinct beginning or end.


This is the first in a series of columns which glimpse into our constantly changing mass of organic circuits that not only makes our life possible but infuses it with mysterious textures.

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