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

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,

Becoming someone else…


topic neuroplasticity
region orbital frontal cortex, cingulate gyrus, caudate nucleus


Dear Doctor Neurostein,

When my 18-years-old daughter was home from college recently, I noticed that she has become extremely germ phobic. This makes sense given that she is currently studying microbiology and is more aware of the ubiquity of microbes in the environment. But her behavior seems excessive. She washes her hand frequently which is not such a bad thing but she is doing this as much as 10-15 times in an hour and she also showers three times a day. She wears a mask while holding her year old baby brother (okay, I’m not too concerned about this because it’s probably a good safety measure) and when she does any cleaning at all around the house. Even for common activities like using the television remote control or opening the front door, she uses disposable gloves.

I’m worried that my daughter has or is at risk of developing OCD. Can you please explain how OCD works and what are my options in terms of helping her live a normal life?

Concerned Mother

Dear Concerned Mother,

This may be a temporary reaction to her new knowledge of germs but if the behavior persists, please consult a therapist for professional diagnosis and discuss the options for treatment.

I will explain the mechanics of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and one potential treatment based on studies conducted by the University of California Los Angeles psychiatrist Jeffrey M. Schwartz.

As per Dr. Schwartz, OCD occurs when there is a problem in the region of the brain that is responsible for steering a person from one thought topic to another. In people with OCD, the caudate nucleus, also referred to as the “automatic gearshift” of the brain, gets jammed.

Before the caudate nucleus gets the signal to move on, however, there are a few other things that happen:

  1. The orbital frontal cortex detects a problem. The problem can be anything that is out of the ordinary. In your daughter’s case, it’s the existence of germs in anything that she might breathe in or touch.
  2. The orbital frontal cortex sends a message to the cingulate gyrus. The cingulate gyrus is the panic center. It triggers physical reactions in the body to perform actions to alleviate the anxiety caused by the “problem”, i.e., washing to eliminate germs.
  3. Once the person corrects the problem (e.g., by washing hands), the caudate nucleus is activated and moves the brain to a different thought. At this point, the orbital frontal cortex (1) and the cingulate gyrus (2) return to their normal state and the problem detection is inactivated since it’s no longer a concern.


ocd chartOCD

In someone with OCD, step #3 does not occur so steps #1 and #2 continue to occur in an infinite loop. In a non-OCD brain, all three steps occur and the brain’s organs return to their normal state.

Dr. Schwartz has developed a system which helps an OCD patient to break out of the infinite loop by causing step #3 to occur. His treatment encourages the caudate nucleus to move the person onto a different thought so that they break out of the compulsive cycle. His cure uses the theory of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to weaken old neural circuits and develop new ones. It is similar to un-learning a behavior and learning a new one. In this case, the behavior applies to the neural synapses in the brain, that is, the brain circuitry forgets an old pattern of behavior and learns a new one.

The way that the treatment works is this:

  1. The patient is taught to become more aware of her OCD behavior such that when it happens, she can identify it as such. In your daughter’s case, if she gets the urge to wash her hands without any reason to do so, she can identify it as OCD behavior.
  2. Once the patient acknowledges that there is no real problem but an OCD reaction, she consciously tries to avoid her normal panic-avoidance reaction, and switches to a task that gives her pleasure. This may be difficult for some patients at first and may create anxiety. Patients use medication or yoga or other methodologies to mange this anxiety.  Perhaps you can try this with your daughter if you feel that she might be ready to talk about her problem. If this forced change in behavior causes panic, she can try some anxiety releasing techniques likes walking or listening to music, or mediation. Any of these techniques will also fulfill the role of the next step, step c.
  3. When the patient switches to a pleasant task, her brain secretes chemicals to reward her behavior. This reinforces the new behavior and it eventually becomes much easier for patients to practice this auto-switch and cause a mental gearshift.

As the patient repeats these steps, new connection form between the brain synapses and the old ones weaken and the brain does not get stuck in the infinite loops of steps 1-2.

In many ways, the concept of neuroplasticity is similar to unlearning bad habits and learning new ones, just a new spin on the concept of practice makes perfect. Neuroplasticity is not just about unlearning but it’s also about learning, i.e., creating new neural circuits. Thus it can be used to not just cure problems but also to learn new concepts regardless of the age of the brain.

It is possible that your daughter is already aware of her compulsive behavior. If not, I hope you are able to make her aware of her issues by pointing out the behavioral examples that you have given to me. Once she acknowledges her problem, you can show her this column to help her understand what is happening in her mind and one possible solution. Ultimately, however, a diagnosis and treatment should occur under the care of a professional therapist.

Dr. Neurostein


This monthly column is published in magazine. Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio 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.

Red vs. Blue


topic politics
region amygdala, ACC


“…My plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet – because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children’s future. And in this election you can do something about it,” said Barack Obama. On the contrary, Mitt Romney said, “I’m not in this race to slow the rise of the oceans or to heal the planet.”

President Obama and Governor Romney’s views represent those of their constituency. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 70% of Democrats “Worry a great deal / fair amount” about climate change, as opposed to only 31% of Republicans. This difference in the Democratic and Republican belief systems can have significant policy impacts regarding climate change.

From a scientific perspective, some of the general differences between Democrats/liberals and Republicans/conservatives can be observed in the workings of the brain. Much of the neuroscience research, however, that has been done in this area is inconclusive, and the results are controversial.  This article is not an exploration into the why or how these differences formed but it is an explanation of the differences that were discovered amongst the representative samples of subjects who self-identified as Republicans or Democrats or conservative or liberal.

A study conducted at University College of London in 2010 concluded that conservatives have a larger amygdala than liberals. The amygdala is responsible for emotional reactions that activate the fight-or-flight response. Other parts of the brain often moderate the primitive survival instincts of the amygdala and guide human behavior.  The methods used for the study and the results are highly controversial and have not passed the scientific rigor of replication and peer review.  Furthermore, there is no scientific correlation between the size and activity of the amygdala.

There are other studies, however, which found differences that have been replicated by many scientists.  A consortium of scientists based in San Diego, discovered that when participating in risk-taking behavior, Republicans show a higher level of activity in the amygdala than Democrats. Democrats, on the other hand, show higher activity in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) when presented with the same risk-taking tasks. The ACC is involved in many functions, both cognitive and emotional, but one of its primary jobs is to resolve conflict. A study published in Nature Neuroscience also describes higher activity in the ACC when liberals made a mistake in pattern recognition. They were able to correct the mistake and improve performance at a faster pace than their conservative counterparts.

Other parts of the brain are also involved in processing information and issues on the political spectrum. As such, these differences are not sufficient to pinpoint brain dynamics.  More extensive studies are required to both understand the differences and the means for communication with brains that exhibit these differences.

For now, how do we negotiate the differences in the belief systems and find a common ground? That’s beyond the scope of this article. But, understanding some of the differences in brain structure can at least provide an insight that the differences are hardwired in the brain. There are many studies that demonstrate that brain chemistry can be changed. This means that communication and negotiation can serve a useful purpose. If Mitt Romney and President Obama cannot agree, perhaps they can find a way to talk to each other and negotiate differences with a common goal of creating a harmonious existence for all Americans.


December: neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change

January: food for thought, i.e., the affect of food on your brain

Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at and a journalism degree from Stanford University. 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. Darren Schreiber, et al. Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans, Emerging Politics, 2009,  []

2. David M. Amodio et al. Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism, Nature Neuroscience, September 9, 2007.

3. Mooney, Chris. The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality. John Wiley and Sons.

4. Mitt Romney’s Climate Change Remarks On ‘Meet The Press’ Outrage Environmental Activists, Huffington Post, Sep. 10, 2012

5. Obama Counterpunches on Climate Change, New York Times, Sep 7, 2012

6. In U.S., Concerns About Global Warming Stable at Lower Level, Gallup Poll, March 14, 2011[].