Category Archives: Jaw Dropping

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.

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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).

The Motherlobe: A Mom’s View on Neuroscience

I’m excited to announce my first guest blogger for Mindless Science: My Mom!  Sammi King is a freelance writer for the Daily Herald, my hometown newspaper.  She usually writes about people and events within the community so we agreed that she would make a perfect guest blogger as a neuro novice.  Here’s my mom with a mother’s take on neuroscience:

My only contact with the brain was years ago when I tried in vain to excise the tiny body part with metal probes from the poor man in the game, “Operation.”  I now have a son at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who is a neuroscience major, so when given the opportunity I decided to check out a brain at a recent trip to a museum.

The brain before me was real, not a plastic model, like the ones we studied in my high school biology class. Unlike the tiny hard brain that I tried to extract from “Operation” this one was big and wormlike.  Although I couldn’t touch this brain, to see if it felt like the ground meat used as simulations for Halloween, I knew it was real.  It formerly belonged to a Chinese man from the traveling exhibit called “Bodies, the Exhibition” at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois.

It is amazing how the red mass of mush can be such an amazing circuitry.  Think about it.  This extraordinary machine works 24 hours a day without a coffee break, a paid vacation or 10 paid holidays.  it doesn’t get any sick days, not even any mental health days.  It is a working machine of enormous magnitude, in constant operation, from the moment we take our first breath till the time the last breath leaves our body.

Unlike a machine, the brain doesn’t get a lot of oil, unless the its caretaker is heavily committed to the Mediterranean diet.  Grease?  Not happening in this day and age.

In fact, the brain gets very low maintenance.  How many machines can do that?  Even robotic brains need a battery recharge every now and then.

Having just finished a story for the Daily Herald (a Chicago/ suburban newspaper with a circulation of 750,000) on the benefits of laughter yoga, I was interested in the part of the brain that produces laughter—the comedy circuit.  is it a smoke filled area where one liners fly as high as the bar tabs?  Is it a sit-com type of circuitry that runs in short half hour stints with limited commercial breaks?  Is it a humor haven filled with jokes, jests and sarcasm?

And where in the brain is the parental lobe, that portion of the brain in your offspring that emits guilt when the drinks flow too freely and the party goes too long on on your son’s college campus.  Is that part of the brain always working?  Even late into the night?

Why isn’t there a switch that flips on automatically and conveys the message, “Mama says”  or “Have you called your mother today?”  rather than the all familiar “This is the captain speaking, please fasten your seat belt you are in for life’s bumpy ride.”

There may be a place in the brain for laughter but I am pretty sure that there is no “motherlobe”  That undoubtedly is saved for the heart.

And while science is still working on discovering areas of the brain associated with ‘sarcasm’ or ‘guilt’, I know that my brain has Brodmann’s Area PS always active (Proud Son).

Great blog, mom!

Synaptic Symphony

I really don’t have much to say, except that I would be doing a dishonor to neuroscience by not posting this to my blog: