Monthly Archives: April 2011

Concussions in Football: A Plea for Safety

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is the neurological degeneration of structures in the brain in areas ranging from the cerebral hemispheres, medial temporal lobe, and brainstem (to name a few).  The degeneration is caused by repetitive brain trauma, often associated with high impact sports like football, boxing, and dwarf wrestling (random, I know).  Outcomes of CTE can be connected to memory loss, personality changes, Parkinsonism, and both physical and verbal stuttering.

Recently, CTE has become an extremely hot topic of debate as it is starting to expose the dangerous side effects of concussions received by professional athletes; more specifically, the National Football League.

In a Nature review, Dr. Ann McKee, a neurologist and co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University in Massachusetts; McKee focused on 48 cases of CTE in amateur/professional boxers, football and soccer players (and a few random cases like head banging and circus clowning).  Besides their findings of mood changes, memory loss, and lack of logic; McKee found a reduction in brain weight, enlargement of the lateral and medial ventricles, thinning of the corpus callosum, and scarring.  Moreover, around 25 locations of the brain were shown to be affected in this review alone.  The mechanisms of injury seem to be directly related to the force of impact given, with blows on the side of the head more severe than those from the front or back.  McKee theorizes that the blood brain barrier is broken and therefore more susceptible to neurotoxins.  Furthermore, the paper examined the lifespan of the illness, ranging around 20 years with only one third of athletes showing symptomatic signs of CTE upon retirement.

McKee did an excellent review, covering psychological testing and section staining, to biomarker assays.  The multiple approaches provided for a more holistic view of CTE.  Still, I would have liked to have seen a few more long term studies indicating a specific time of concussion to neurodegeneration.  Animal models would have been a nice addition to be able to see this effect.

This information will definitely put more pressure on the NFL to enforce safety precautions.  However, I’m still not convinced that this information will have any meaningful results.  Early steps have already started to be taken by redesigning helmets to try and reduce the impact and therefore severity of concussion, but I don’t think that that’s enough.  Rules have to be enforced regulating illegal hits to the head and play time after having a concussion.  Most people think of a ‘concussion’ and don’t actually realize the severity of what might have happened.  If we want to see pro-sports continue, the safety of the players has to be reconsidered and something has to be done.

The brain and GLEE: The songs that just won’t leave your head

Does Gwenyth Paltrow have a point? Is there a way that we can selectively choose which pieces of information we could remember? Will you ever be able to get this song out of your head?  To be honest, maybe.

During the 1800s, the field of phrenology was just developing.  Phrenology is the idea  that the bumps on your skull are representative of your intelligence or personality.  If one part of your brain was larger than others, then you would be ‘more of’ that quality.  However,  neuroscientists tested this idea by removing the area responsible for secrecy, predicting that the patient would tell everyone all of their secrets.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.  The amount of the cortex lesioned, not necessarily the location, had more of an effect.

But these researchers weren’t too far off.  Wilder Penfield, a canadian neurosurgeon, found that patients would experience memories based on stimulation of different parts of the lobe.  They would recount a specific memory or time after the stimulation.  It might be a lot of work, but if we were able to find the location where the song actually is, we might be able to lesion that area to get rid of it.

So is it possible to actually ‘forget you’?  Yes.  Is it worth it?  Definitely not.  Glee is a great show and you should keep the songs stuck in your head!

So What Happens When a Stake Goes Through Your Head?

Have you ever asked yourself this question?  … Yeah… uhh…. me neither… But just in case you have wondered this, here’s a little story of a good friend: Phineas Gage.

In 1848, the railroad business in California was literally booming as formen were hired to lay down railroad through mountainous terrain.  In order to complete this task, our good friend Phineas would have to lay dynamite and then pack it in with a 5 foot iron rod.  On one unfortunate day, Phineas didn’t pack the dynamite well enough as it exploded,  sending the stake flying straight into his face.

The most remarkable thing about all of this?  Phineas not only survived this blast, but immediately got up and walked over to the doctor.  Before the accident: Phineas was an intelligent, shy businessman, energetic and extremely driven.  After the accident: he became impatient, obstinate, and just downright rude.  Because of his change in attitude, he was eventually fired (but interestingly found a job with the circus and his brain rod).

So what happened?  How come he survived?  Why did he have this sudden personality change?  Well, most likely, good ol’ Phineas had his ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex destroyed.  This is the area of the brain that is responsible for personality.  Now his change from Mr. Nice Guy to the rude one is still a mystery, we’re still trying to figure that one out.  This is the area that gives us originality.  This makes us who we are.

 But even if you really don’t like someone, I wouldn’t suggest providing them with a shovel to the face as a ‘personality adjustment’.

The Neuroaesthetics of New Union South

What makes art so attractive?  What makes architecture inspiring?  What makes the new Union South at the University of Wisconsin – Madison so effing sweet?  The answers may lie in your brain.  Here are three new features of the Union South that make our brain go crazy:

1. Symmetrical Lines:

In a paper published in the Journal of Vision, our brains are extremely sensitive to symmetry.  We have certain cells that are sensitive to the orientation of the light hitting our eyes.  When these bands are present in architecture, more cells are activated leading to a greater response.  In the Stett, a restaurant/stage of the Union South, clean lines cross the stage.

2. Color:

The brightly colored union chairs are back!  Sure, you knew that you loved them over at the Memorial Union, but why?  Harvard University pinpointed where color is excited within our brain.  Near the back of the brain, just below our temples, we can see a burst of activity.  The more colors that we see and experience, the more activated our brains will be.  I guess the crayon ‘tickle me pink’ kind of makes sense now…

3.  Juxtaposition:

What makes one view stand out over another?  A Stanford review tells us that the fusiform gyrus has cells that respond to specific orientations.  When something, like the new rock wall, has different angles and points, multiple cells are active and excite a larger area of our brain.  Different walls = different cells = no way I’m making it to the top.

Looks like Union South is doing everything right in order to give us the exciting experience in mind (pun intended).

Don’t Scratch That!

Do you remember when you were a little kid and you would be able to enjoy those beautiful summer nights of playing outside with your friends just long enough to steal the few remaining rays of light?  Remember how fun those nights were?  Yeah, I’m sure they were great… great until the mosqitoes came out.  All it took was one bite, one bite and your night was ruined.  You just wanted to scratch, but your mom told you not to.  I mean, what did she know?  She couldn’t have had any idea of the excrutiating annoyingness of that one bite.  Just.  One.  Scratch.

Now I’ve heard of a lot of different methods to keep your mind off of scratching.  I’ve heard of making a small X with your finger nail right on the spot, covering the spot with an array of dressings (from peanut butter to toothpaste), and trying to resqueeze out the stuff that the mosquito put in you.  I don’t know if any of those would actually work (or be any good for your peanut butter and jelly sandwiches), but I do know one way to fix this.

Your skin has a ton of receptors leading from pain, to heat, to stretch.  A lot of these receptors have common pathways leading to your brain.  So instead of focussing on how to get the bite from itching, you have to get your brain to stop thinking about the bite.  Alright, so how?  By rubbing the area around the mosquito bite, you’re activating a range of other receptors that are sending signals to the brain.  Ultimately, you’re confusing your own brain with this barrage of signals.  The brain is picking up the information from the (now slightly chapped) area instead of the irritating itch receptor.  Itching can actually damage the skin and open your body to easy access for bacteria and other nasty things you don’t want in you.

So next time you get that urge to scratch, just prove your superiority over your brain and trick it.  Rub the area instead of scratching.  Either that or take showers in mosquito repellent.

Mapping the Human Brain

What do you use a map for?  You use it to find things.  You use it to remember where you’ve been.  You bring it up on your iPhone when you don’t want to talk to someone so you look busy.  What do neuroscientists use a brain map for?  Pretty much all the same things (especially when they don’t want to deal with annoying grant deadlines).

The Allen Institute for Brain Science has released a comprehensive map of the human brain.  This is big.  This is really big.  This means that they’ve mapped out (to the best of our ability, so far) what the brain looks like on a genetic level.  They used a combination of imaging and genetic sequencing analyses to create 3D structures of the brain that can be used for future research in things like Alzheimers, obesity, or MS.

Before this map, the Allen Institute had mapped a rat brain which has lead to at least 500 scientific breakthroughs in the field of neuroscience.   Researchers and scientists alike can access this free material to examine what other research has found, hoping to find some sort of overlooked, unexamined bit of information.

In the end, all this means is that we’re going to see a lot new research possible because of this.  Most people won’t even know what a big impact this will have, but it’s great for research.  Neuroscience FTW!

This is your brain on Disney

If a dream is a wish your heart makes, then your brain must be doing something right.

Recent research published in the International Journal of Tourism Anthropology examines the effect that Disney has on neurological development.  The paper, written by University of Missouri professor Craig T. Palmer, refutes a previous hypothesis of the neurological development of creativity, storytelling, humor, and fantasy within the human brain.  Deemed the mating mind hypothesis, it suggested that our minds developed these artistic centers as a way to attract and court the opposite sex. (Sounds pretty reasonable to me.)  Courting leads to reproduction, which then leads to stabilizing evolution providing for larger centers in the brain relating to those traits.

To refute this statement, Palmer used the concrete example of Disneyland to compare it to.   Now I don’t know if Palmer actually wanted to refute the hypothesis or just find some sort of research that would allow him to spend an ample amount of his time in the park, but this guy knows how to pick a thesis. Palmer said that the development of these sections in the brain were actually more related to the parenting strategies used to tweak the behavior of their children.  The characteristics are seen as more of a transmission of culture rather than as a means for natural selection.  It would just so happen to be that those that were wittier and had a love for all things Disney would reproduce (giving hope to Disney fanatics everywhere).

So what does this mean in the long run?  It means that if you want your kids to listen to you and grow up to be respectable adults, looks like you’re heading to Disneyland.  So when you’re trying to find that new parenting technique to discipline an unruly child, just listen to Pinocchio and, “always let your conscience be your guide.”