Wednesday, 5 November 2014
Children and adults alike are digging out those spooky costumes ready for a celebration. We’ve reached that time of year again: Halloween. October 31 is dedicated to remembering the dead.
We’ve all experienced fear, but Halloween is the particular time of year when we look for that rush that usually accompanies feeling scared. Are you in need of a “scare-specialist” for this year’s Halloween celebrations? Then you need not look further than your very own brain.
Perhaps you’ll be spending Halloween watching A Nightmare on Elm Street with your hands over your eyes? Or maybe you’d rather wander around a haunted house waiting for ghouls and critters to pop out of unseen annexes? Whatever your tastes may be, when faced with such spine-tingling situations your brain enters into fight-or-flight mode. This mode is a primitive survival mechanism in which your body undergoes a stress response to a perceived threat in your surrounding environment.
While this reaction originally developed to help our ancestors circumvent predators in a world filled with danger, it is more common today for us to experience such feelings in response to mental threats. Mental threats are threats which are unlikely to harm us physically, but those which are more likely to cause some psychological distress.
The fight-or-flight response is handled by your amygdala – the part of your brain involved in the experience of emotion. This ancient brain system is an integral part of fear processing, but it is unable to distinguish between a physical or a mental threat. So while sweaty palms and anxiety may make more sense in the presence of a hungry bear, they also manifest in undesirable scenarios such as during job interviews or scary films.
There is plenty of evidence to support the involvement of the amygdala with fear processing. Impressively, when this brain region was completely removed in rats they no longer displayed fearful or avoidance behaviours towards their sworn mortal enemy – the cat.
So when that creepy atmospheric music in your horror movie starts to get louder and louder, and the sudden appearance of the masked murderer makes you jump, this will act as a stimulus which will trigger a signal in your amygdala. In response to a perceived threat, it releases a brain chemical called glutamate, which acts on two other regions of your brain. The first signal is sent deep into the base of the brain, into an area called the mid-brain, which we have little control over. This makes us freeze or involuntarily jump, which isn’t great if you’ve got a box of popcorn in your lap.
The second signal is sent to the hypothalamus, a section of the brain responsible for producing hormones. The hypothalamus triggers our autonomic nervous system – which is how our fight or flight instinct starts to kick in. The heart rate and blood pressure go up, and adrenaline and dopamine (the brain’s “reward hormone”) are pumped throughout the body. This helps our bodies to prepare for deadly combat or for the run of our lives, and it is why you feel such a rush whenever you’re scared.
Why some people like it
Some people actually enjoy these experiences of fear and the accompanying rush more than others. Perhaps you’re one of those individuals who watches terrifying films throughout the year or seeks out extreme sports or risky activities.
There is emerging evidence that our underlying brain chemistry may also be responsible for individual differences in the enjoyment of being afraid. David Zald and colleagues from Vanderbilt University showed that people differed in their chemical responses to thrilling situations.
We know that dopamine is released in response to scary and thrilling situations, but in those who reported enjoying such terrifying situations, their brain lacks a “brake” on the dopamine release and re-uptake in the brain. This means that they experience more pleasure and reward in spooky or risky situations from even higher levels of dopamine in the brain. While some of you may cower at the mere mention of Freddy Krueger, others will feel the bubbles of excitement beginning to brew.
So if you get your kicks from ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night, this is probably why.
Kira Shaw is one of the Sheffield NeuroGirls @Shef_NeuroGirls
Wednesday, 27 August 2014
by NeuroGirl Rebecca
Recently, I was asked to give a talk at a University of Sheffield summer conference on public engagement as part of my work as a Sheffield NeuroGirl.
I began my talk by asking everyone to get to their feet. With some muttered confusion, everyone did as they were asked (I still love how that works!). I then asked anyone who either had, or knew someone with a mental illness to sit back down again. Amazingly, only two people were left standing. This is by no means an unusual state of affairs. We know that one in four people will experience some kind ofmental health problem in this year alone including 10% of all children. A breakdown in a healthy brain is also indiscriminate in who it targets too, mental health problems can affect rich and poor, all races and both sexes. The sad case of the recent suicide of Robin Williams shows that even celebrities, who have tangible proof of how their lives touch so many and give much joy, can take their own life when struggling with ill mental health.
Why then, is there still so little education on the brain and how it works in schools? Why are there not lessons that teach children what our brains do and why they might go wrong? Surely, if mental health is going to be an issue that will touch us all at some point throughout our lives it behoves the government to educate the future generations that will have to deal with this on this problem? That way, they will have the best chance and the best tools for being able to cope with the issues they will almost certainly face. As a neuroscientist, I’m only too aware of all the problems a brain can face throughout its lifetime, but along with that awareness comes a sense of normality about mental ill health. I know that depression could be caused by a deficit in a neurotransmitter called serotonin. I know that problems with an area of the brain called the caudate putamen can cause OCD. I also know that these failures are biological failures that can be caused by a wide variety of factors, psychological and physical. But the main point is, many people and many children do not know. Believe it or not, some people still believe that ill mental health is a punishment from God. Or that if ‘they’ just tried hard enough, ‘they’ could snap out of it. And ignorance about mental health can lead to bullying, prejudice, fear and heartache. It can lead to resistance in those suffering to seek the help that can be given and to those around the sufferer feeling scared and worried about talking about the problems that they see.
A simple program of education in schools could help to bring about a real change in society. It could help to provide a long term solution to the problem of ignorance about mental health. I will continue to go into local schools and talk to children about the brain and mental health but unless I can crack time travel once and for all, a better national solution is required. It’s time for the brain itself to go on the curriculum.
Find out more about the Sheffield NeuroGirls by visiting our website:
or following us on twitter @Shef_NeuroGirls
Find out more about the Sheffield NeuroGirls by visiting our website:
or following us on twitter @Shef_NeuroGirls
Friday, 22 August 2014
What is it about this charity stunt that has gotten everyone from billionaires to pop stars and even a former president wanting to get drenched by a bucket of freezing water? This blog discusses the challenge, the charity, and how it can be good for your brain.
The Ice Bucket Challenge
What could possibly be the link between George W Bush, Justin Bieber, David Beckham and Oprah Winfrey? These are just some of the high profile faces that have gotten their cameras at the ready and taken time out of their busy schedules to take on the ice bucket challenge. This daring feat was pioneered by the late Corey Griffin who created this innovative way to raise money after discovering his friend had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). What started off as an ordinary fund raising idea has taken social media by storm. Now hundreds, if not thousands, have been inspired to dump a bucket of cold water over their heads and donate some of their hard earned cash to this charitable cause. So far the trend has resulted in £25.2 million ($41.8m) being raised: proof of the power and influence of social media and celebrity.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
What is it about this charity that has inspired so many people to subject themselves to an ice cold drenching? ALS (also referred to as motor neuron or Lou Gehrig’s disease) is a neurodegenerative disease that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Approximately one person per 50,000 people have been diagnosed with ALS, meaning 30,000 people living in America alone may have the disease at any given time. ALS affects a type of neuron called the ‘motor neuron’, which connects the central nervous system to our muscles. Progressive degeneration of these motor neurons eventually leads to neuron death. Following this neuronal death, the ability for the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. The exact cause of ALS is still not completely known. ALS, like any other neurodegenerative disease, affects many people lives. Donating money to this cause helps to fund research which is crucial to exploring new treatment avenues. It is clear that this charity is a very worthy cause; however this trend has also left us wondering how such a simple idea can achieve such a high profile within such a short amount of time. What is it about following the latest fad that resonates with so many people?
Why do we follow the latest trends?
Perhaps it’s because we would like to know that our celebrities are just like us. Celebrities are talented individuals who are accomplished in their particular field. Usually these accomplishments result in thousands of adoring fans who are able to follow their every move on social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The growing popularity of social media means fans are now given an inside view into the previously mysterious private lives of their favourite star. What is it about our minds that fuel this desire to find out what your favourite celebrity has had for breakfast every morning? Why do we gain pleasure from knowing these peculiar tit-bits? And what do we really gain from having this knowledge? Maybe by emulating our favourite celeb we can feel closer to them and we might inherit some of their good fortune. The latest trend in celeb land: the ice bucket challenge!
Humans are social beings who enjoy interaction at many different levels and in many different ways; whether that be by sending a text, meeting up for a coffee, or by reading about David Beckham in a magazine. The reason humans gain such pleasure from social interaction is because of the reward pathway set up in our brains. Social interaction has been linked to an area of the brain called the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which is located in the brain stem. This area is where dopamine is created. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter linked with natural reward and feeling happy. This means that whenever we experience a positive social interaction our brain is flushed with dopamine.
So remember if you do decide to take on the ice bucket challenge, know that you’ll be activating your VTA and getting that vital dopamine hit! Get closer to your favourite celeb, donate to a great cause, and get those buckets out.
Read more about ALS by following this link: http://www.alsa.org/about-als/what-is-als.html
Wednesday, 16 July 2014
“Speak First, Think Later”
There are many examples of Joey behaving impulsively and “without thinking” throughout the series. Joey is a very lovable and loyal character, although he is portrayed as rather dim-witted and unintelligent. He often behaves with no reservations, ignoring typical social conventions and just reacting impulsively. The classic example is “Joey doesn’t share food!” Joey goes on a dinner date with one of Phoebe’s friends, who reaches to take some of his meal; ignoring social standards which demand we remain polite, Joey proceeds to shout at his date for “trying to take food off his plate”.
Joey may naturally react more impulsively than other people as his brain may have to work harder to rein in his inappropriate behaviour. This reputation for speaking before thinking and poor decision-making is often attributed to immaturity, however there is also a neural explanation for Joey’s lack of impulse control. He may have reduced activity in his ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). The vmPFC is involved in the top-down control of behaviour, meaning it can act as a brake to stop a person acting on their rapid initial thoughts, allowing them to behave in a more socially appropriate manner. If a person has reduced activity in this area of the brain, then they’re unable to “turn on the brake” to stop themselves behaving in line with their first instinct, meaning they can act impulsively and without thinking.
Three marriages and counting… Ross is an optimist and a perpetual romantic. He is the smartest of the group, and is also known for his misfortune in the dating department. Ross goes through a series of doomed relationships throughout the show: divorcing his first wife when she reveals she is a lesbian and has had an affair with another woman; sabotaging his love-affair with Rachel over the confusion surrounding their decision to “take a break”; and humiliating Emily when he refers to her as “Rachel” during their wedding vows. Ross is a serial monogamist, and flits through romantic relationship after romantic relationship, constantly searching for “the one”.
It is possible that Ross has this obsession with love and finding his ideal match because he has certain brain differences which lead him to behave this way. Romantic love can affect the brain in the same way as drugs, targeting the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is involved in the reward pathway of the brain. In this sense, perhaps love is as addictive as drug taking, and Ross has an addictive personality? It is also possible that Ross has reduced activity in his amygdala, an area of the brain associated with fear and aversive learning. If activity in this area is diminished, then Ross will not be able to learn from his past mistakes. Consequently, he will continue to make the same errors in his romantic relationships over and over again.
“Could he BE anymore sarcastic!?”
Chandler prides himself on his good sense of humour, and he is well known for his sarcasm. He is frequently the friend cracking jokes and mocking others. The show is filled with hundreds of classic examples of Chandler being sarcastic. In Series 3 (“The One with All the Football”) Joey chastises Chandler for “never wanting to do anything” since he and Janice broke up, and Chandler is quick to quip “I wanted to wear my bathrobe and eat peanut clusters all day. I wanted to start drinking in the morning. Don’t say that I don’t have goals!”
Chandler is funny, intelligent and witty, all traits which compliment his sarcastic nature. However, there is also a neural explanation behind Chandler’s passion for sarcastic humour. This can be attributed to increased activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). The language areas which are located on the left side of the brain are equipped to interpret the literal meaning of words; however it is the vmPFC which is involved when understanding the social and emotional context behind words and phrases. This means that someone with increased activity in their vmPFC may be much more attuned to sarcasm, as they are able to distinguish easily between the literal and intended meanings of sentences.
“The Egotistical One”
Rachel has a passion for clothes, accessories and make-up. This focus on vanity often comes at the expense of the development of her domestic skills and her general knowledge. Particularly in the early series, Rachel is portrayed as a spoilt daddy’s girl, who is substantially self-centred. One example which highlights Rachel’s vanity is the storyline surrounding the plastic surgery she had on her nose for a supposed ‘deviated septum’. In the flashback episodes Rachel can be seen sporting a much larger nose; and following the birth of her daughter, her sister Amy even asked her “Do you ever worry that Emma’s going to get your real nose?” Whilst Rachel does develop throughout the later series into a much more likeable and caring character, she perpetually remains concerned with fashion and looking good.
It is possible that Rachel has an innate drive to be concerned with her appearance due to certain structural abnormalities in a region of the brain previously linked with feelings of empathy. Rachel may have less grey matter in her left anterior insula, as a reduction in the number of brain cells in this area have been found in individuals with narcissistic personalities. The insula is known to influence emotion regulation and the control of social emotions. This reduced activity in the left anterior insula may therefore lead Rachel to experience feelings of low self-esteem and inferiority, whilst also displaying the traits of arrogance and vanity.
“The Clean Freak”
Monica is the mother-hen of the group. She is a neat-freak who loves to clean and organise her belongings. Her obsessive cleanliness becomes more exaggerated throughout the series, for instance in the episode “The One with the Embryos” Monica decides to stack her towels into eleven categories (including “Everyday use”, “Fancy”, “Guest”, and “Fancy Guest”). Monica becomes so manic over her cleaning rituals in fact, that she even fantasises about cleaning her cleaning supplies – using a smaller vacuum to clean her regular-sized vacuum.
It’s possible that Monica suffers from a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which can again be attributed to certain functional brain differences. A person who suffers from OCD becomes trapped in a cycle of repetitive thoughts and behaviours. Obsessive thoughts can include the ever-present fear of germs, and compulsive behaviours may include the rituals employed to tackle these fears, like excessive cleaning. It is likely that Monica has increased activity levels in her anterior cingulate, nucleus caudate, and orbital frontal cortex. These three regions work alongside the thalamus to create a “worry circuit”. This means that these areas are responsible for detecting threats in our environment (e.g. “germs”) and sending a worry signal to the thalamus. Once this worry signal has been sent typically a “brake” will be applied to stop the worry re-circulating. In OCD this “brake” does not work efficiently, and the worry signal will continue to fire repeatedly, meaning the person is continually aware of the external threat.
Phoebe is the kooky, eccentric friend. She is passionate about animals, her friends, and art. Music is one of her great loves, and she can often be spotted singing and/or playing her guitar. One of Phoebe’s more popular songs is “Smelly Cat”, which she regularly performs at Central Perk. The song is about a lonely cat shunned from society due to its stench (“smelly cat, smelly cat, what are they feeding you?”) Phoebe’s penchant for music can be explained by her ‘musical brain’.
The brain structure between musicians and non-musicians is distinctly different. It is likely that Phoebe has more grey matter volume in her motor, auditory, and visual-spatial brain regions. This means that through all her repetitive rehearsals in which she practised the guitar and her vocal scales, Phoebe was physically able to change the structure of her brain. Her motor cortex will thus be more adept to perform the fine motor skills needed to form chords and strum on the strings; her auditory cortex will be more attuned to hear harmonious musical notes; and her visual-spatial regions will allow Phoebe to integrate all her musical skills together to sing and play the guitar concurrently.
Monday, 21 April 2014
I’ll admit it, of all the things I thought might happen during my illustrious and highly glamorous career as a neuroscience PhD student, being heckled by a thirteen year old shouting “GABA”, was not on my list.
It all began when bright eyed and bushy tailed in my first year, I turned to the other girls in my office. “Hey! They want speakers for schools, maybe we should do a brain talk together?” The other girls agreed and the NeuroGirls were born.
Our first talk that first year was dreadful in a feeling-sick, scared-of-thousands-of-tiny-possibly-mean-children kind of way. We narrowly escaped the teachers ditching us with the children and skiving off for a cup of tea and a natter with the librarian! Although we’d had some training and were covered by STEM ambassador insurance, we explained that as we were not trained teachers we therefore should not be left alone with the many many (ok probably about 30) kiddies…
|Credit: Robert Harding Picture Library / SuperStock|
That first moment before you launch into your talk is scary no matter what you are speaking about and who you are speaking to. We had a sea of bright young faces, mostly looking interested and ready to be entertained! I gulped, wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans and launched forth about the mysteries of the wonderful cerebellum and why exactly it enabled David Beckham to score all his goals and allowed dolphins to jump through hoops of burning fire.
The kiddies were entranced. Ok, the squirrel video might have helped. But having enthusiasm for your subject helps bucket loads too. This year, we set ourselves a tougher goal. Seven talks instead of four. Year 9-11s instead of lovely year 7s. Gulp.
So, we decided to provide a little incentive for our audience. We made a quiz! A lovely brain quiz with, and this is important to those teenage blighters, prizes. We each talked for about 10 minutes, then did 5 questions on what we’d spoken about. It worked like a charm, even the sulkiest of adolencents perked up! However, one of my questions was “Name a neurotransmitter”. And so, back to the heckling! And, dear reader, it didn’t just happen the once. I was heckled with GABA on multiple occasions. After the first time, I could hear the other two girls cracking up behind me. Charming…
I must say though, the heckling hasn’t put me off the talks at all. All three of us are keener than ever to go back again next year. Maybe we’ll do nine schools this year, who knows?? Because engaging with kids, telling them about what you do and why you love it is one of the favourite parts of my job. And if I help even one of those students NeuroGirls at Birley Community College with a decision about what to study in the future, it’s worth it.
Being positive female role models in science doesn’t hurt either.