The BRAIN

 

“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.”

“Yup.”

“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 http://FishRidingABike.com. Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at http://WhoseBrainIsIt.com.

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

References:

  1. Flatow,  Ira, host of President Obama Calls for a BRAIN Initiative, NPR>Science>Research News, April 5, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/04/05/176339688/president-obama-calls-for-a-brain-initiative
  2. Neuroscientists Weigh In on Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, Scientific American, May 2, 2013, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=neuroscientists-weigh-in-obamas-brain-initiative
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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.

Upcoming…

February:  how do written words affect the brain?


This monthly column is published in SynchChaos.com magazine. Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at http://www.FishRidingABike.com. Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at http://www.WhoseBrainIsIt.com.

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. 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, http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov

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.

Upcoming…

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 http://FishRidingABike.com and a journalism degree from Stanford University. Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at http://WhoseBrainIsIt.com.

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. Darren Schreiber, et al. Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans, Emerging Politics, 2009,  [http://www.politicsemerging.com/Publications/RedBrainBlueBrain.pdf]

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[http://www.gallup.com/poll/146606/Concerns-Global-Warming-Stable-Lower-Levels.aspx].