April 28, 2016

#PhDin2016: April Re-cap

Wow, how am I writing my April update already? This month flew by so quickly.

I do have exciting news, though. I FINISHED MY RESULTS CHAPTERS on Thursday, April 21 at 6:52pm. Yes. This was very momentous. I can also tell you exactly what I ate, wore, etc. etc. on that day. THIS WAS VERY EXCITING, PEOPLE.

This is the face of someone who literally *just* wrote the last sentence of their Results section:

April 25, 2016

The False Dream of Less Sleep

During a typical week in college, I slept four or five hours a night. Between evening classes, club meetings, and writing lab reports, I was lucky if I made it to bed by midnight before my 5  a.m. alarm wailed each morning for rowing practice.

I never actually felt too terribly tired, which was the strange part. Naturally, I likened myself to Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and other greats who claimed to need just a few hours of sleep each night. Little did I know, the damage was already being done.

It wasn’t until I started researching sleep for my PhD in neuroscience that I realized only a handful of people actually succeed at getting by on just a few hours of rest—and they’ve got genetics on their side.

Read the rest at PrimeMind here.

March 31, 2016

#PhDin2016: February/March Re-cap

When I was at the AAAS meeting last month, an undergraduate neuroscience student was presenting next to me in the poster competition. He was shocked to learn I was a 5th-year graduate student.

"But you don't look all exhausted and run-down like other grad students. Impressive."

Just after I finished my first Results chapter earlier this month. Woo!
At first I was flattered, but then I was sad. The stereotype is so prevalent.

And then I congratulated my body for holding up, because psychologically, I was really exhausted and run-down.

I didn't blog about my dissertation progress last month because there was nothing to blog about. I was going through a nasty little bout of depression that was making it hard to make progress on anything, really.

This is not something I'm scared or ashamed to talk about. It can happen to anyone who finds themselves stretched a little too thin; I just don't happen to be as resilient as the next person. If I broke my arm, I'd have to wear a cast, and everyone would see it. My brain needed a little patching up, too. That's all.

And it needs to be talked about, because stuff like this happens if we don't.

Since then, I've sought help, and with some little pick-me-ups of sunshine, warmer weather, and making a little more effort to be kinder to myself, we're back on track.

Perhaps the biggest motivator is that I now have an official dissertation date: June 7 at 1:30pm!

February 23, 2016

Pregnancy Brain: A Neuroscientific Guide for the Expectant Mom (Part 2 of 2)

Pickles and ice cream, anyone? Shutterstock
My forgetful friend – the subject of my original article – gave birth to a baby girl on Thanksgiving Day. She’s a beauty, and I know Mom agrees that the morning sickness, crazy sense of smell, and forgetfulness were worth it in the end.

In the meantime, while she’s experiencing a whole new set of biochemical processes that happens when a woman becomes a mother, let’s re-explore even more crazy changes that affect – or originate in – the brain during pregnancy. What causes clumsiness, food cravings, and moodiness?

February 15, 2016

3 "Takeaways" from the 2016 AAAS Meeting | #AAASmtg

Aaaand that's a wrap on my first-ever AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meeting!

This was the first conference I've ever attended totally by myself, and I enjoyed the freedoms (attending whatever sessions I want to attend!) and challenges (who will I eat dinner with tonight?) that came with it. Being exposed to the greatest minds in ALL fields of science was particularly exhilarating, as was adding to my ever-growing list of Twitter-friends-I-finally-meet-in-real-life!

Presenting in the student poster competition on Saturday afternoon. You can read press coverage of this research here.
I'd like to extend my deepest gratitude to the society for providing me with the Helen F. Holt Scholarship for Early Career Women in Science, which covered my travel, lodging, and membership with AAAS. The award was presented on Saturday morning at the Women and Minorities breakfast in honor of AAAS CEO Rush Holt's mother, who passed away in July just shy of her 102nd birthday. Helen Froelich Holt was a college science teacher, the first woman to hold statewide office in West Virginia, and a federal housing official and eldercare advocate who helped re-vamp long-term care facilities and nursing homes.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Holt briefly on Friday afternoon, and he spoke warmly of how his mother's first AAAS meeting attendance, in 1938, truly validated her standing as a member of the scientific community. I felt exactly the same way this week after attending my first AAAS meeting.

I could write a textbook about my experiences — but as I was reminded of the average reader's short attention span at a communication session on Thursday, I'll briefly outline three "takeaway" messages from the meeting!

January 31, 2016

#PhDin2016: January Re-cap

Selfie taken at 5pm Wednesday — just after finishing
my Methods chapter!
One month down, four to go!

If you caught my post earlier this month, you know that I've started my doctoral dissertation and will be here blogging about my progress and challenges at the end of each month.

Here's how January went.

What I Did:

My first task — and I mean TASK! — was getting the formatting down. I basically have the entire skeleton for the document with proper font, headings, line spacing, bolding, italics, page numbering etc. etc. etc. in all the right places. That took a solid two hours one afternoon (mostly because creating sections for page numbers in Word always turns out to be a minor nightmare, no matter how many times I've done it). I've been referring to the dissertation style guide constantly because I don't want to submit this dang thing for review and be told I did something completely wrong. Best get it down now, right? The title page is rather snazzy.

January 14, 2016

Should I Stay Up an Extra Hour Being Productive, or Give Myself an Extra Hour of Sleep?

It’s every student’s dilemma. Should you keep studying and delay your bedtime, or shut the books and hit the hay?

My little stinker of a cat, Yoshi, understands the
importance of sleep.
In college, I regularly stayed up until midnight or 1am studying and writing lab reports, even though my alarm went off at 5 each morning for rowing practice. It was always so tempting to stay up late when there was just so much work to be done. So much work, all the time.

Although running on 4 or 5 hours of sleep in college let me finish a lot studying, I was sleepy. I found myself nodding off during class, eating more food to keep myself awake, and I became more susceptible to catching colds. I found it harder to study because I hadn’t paid attention well in class. On occasion, I didn’t do as well on tests as I would have liked to. Sometimes I even found myself being short-tempered toward my friends.

Sound familiar?

These days, after working in a sleep research laboratory for the past four years and becoming intimately acquainted with what the research says about sleep curtailment, I am much more inclined to shut the books, close my laptop, and crawl into bed.

In short, there are literally no benefits – none, zip, zero, nada – to depriving oneself of necessary sleep.

Read the rest of this at Beasts, Unburdened  here. Beasts, Unburdened is a community of future veterinarians who come together to discuss challenges they face in their journey. If you or someone you know is a veterinary student, follow the blog! It's run by my brother, and he's pretty cool.

January 10, 2016

What Explains the Allure of Adult Coloring Books?

Lea Latumahina (Creative Commons)
A few months ago, I caved: I bought myself a coloring book.

And maybe you did, too, or perhaps you received one as a gift for the holidays. According to a recent Fortune article, adult coloring books are one of the biggest contributors to this year’s boost in print-book sales. With over 11,000 search results total, five of Amazon’s current top 15 best-selling books are coloring books.

A few nights a week, I look forward to curling up on the couch with my ever-growing collection of colored pencils, tuning in to the latest episode of Serial, and scribbling away at mandalas and Harry Potters — but I still find the trend strange.

I’ve always had a penchant for making new things from scratch — painting, knitting, writing, drawing, baking. But with my coloring book, I’m not really creating anything. The designs are already on the page — I’m just filling in the white spots. And yet the activity is just as soothing to my mind as my more traditionally “creative” hobbies. So what is the psychological draw of a task that feels creative, but doesn’t actually involve creating anything new?

Read the rest of this at New York Magazine's Science of Us here.

January 3, 2016

Ringing in 2016, PhD-Style: The Year of the Dissertation

Exciting news, brainiacs! Starting this month, I'll be outlining and beginning to write my dissertation, which I'm aiming to defend in late May. I'm simultaneously dreading it and chomping at the bit to get started. Wish me luck!

In order to accomplish this intimidating, but necessary, last step of my education, a few changes to the blog will be taking place over the next few months:

November 10, 2015

Pregnancy Brain: A Neuroscientific Guide for the Expectant Mom (Part 1 of 2)

My friend recently asked me, “Why have I become so forgetful since I became pregnant?” I told her I didn’t know, but that I’d look into it and write an article for her.

She then followed with, “I was going to ask you to explain something else to me, but I totally forgot what it was.”

Does “pregnancy brain” actually exist? There’s no doubt that many changes are happening to a woman’s body during pregnancy, but how do these changes affect (or originate in) the brain? To answer my friend’s question – and in an effort to address whatever else she was forgetting at the time – here is Part 1 of my expectant mom’s guide to the crazy neuroscience of pregnancy.

November 9, 2015

Implanting and Erasing Memories: Life-Changing, or Taking Science Too Far?

Most people who have experienced emotional trauma — such as war veterans, sexual assault survivors, or those whose lives have been threatened — are able to heal emotionally within weeks and months of the distressing event.

Breakthrough: Decoding the Brain (National Geographic Channel)
But for some individuals, the anxiety associated with the event never quite goes away with the passage of time. Recurring and intrusive flashbacks, nightmares, feelings of numbness or hopelessness, and avoidance of places, people, and activities that remind you of the traumatic event are common symptoms. At some point in their lives, around 7.8% of Americans will experience post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and antidepressant medication are the current treatments for PTSD, but they're not successful in everybody.

But what if doctors and researchers could attack PTSD at the source: actually implanting or erasing specific memories in a person's brain?

It may sound like science fiction — not unlike Lord Voldemort luring Harry Potter to the Ministry of Magic by creating false images in Harry's mind, or the entire premise of the movie Inception — but science is actually getting close. In mice, neuroscientists have found ways to not only identify the location of certain memories, but to actually manipulate those memories.

But can we do this in humans — in patients with PTSD? And perhaps the bigger question: should we?

October 29, 2015

#BrainBits 6: "What are Hiccups?"

This is the final post in my #BrainBits series. Although this series has ended, you are always welcome to e-mail me or tweet me suggestions for neuroscience-related topics that you've always wondered or want to learn more about. I just might write about them on the blog!

What are hiccups?  Possibly the most annoying thing (in my opinion, anyway) that can happen to the body on a semi-regular basis is HICCUPS. They're unexpected, they're rhythmic, and they're darn hard to get rid of.

But what are they in the first place, anyway?

Hiccups can also be...terrifying? (Watch the kitten on the right.)
Pretty nice image to tie in National Cat Day (today), Halloween (Saturday), and the topic of this post, eh? Reddit (anfea2004)

When we breathe normally, air is drawn into the lungs thanks to the contraction of the diaphragm, a sheet of muscle that extends just under the lungs. This contraction is controlled by the firing of the phrenic nerve.

With hiccups, the phrenic nerve becomes irritated, resulting in erratic, involuntary contractions of the diaphragm. The spasm is so strong that it causes us to draw in a quick breath and our vocal cords to close briefly, resulting in the characteristic (read: embarrassing) "HIC!" sound.

Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research
So what causes this phrenic nerve irritation? Most commonly, gastric distention caused by bloating, eating too quickly or eating too much, carbonated beverages, swallowing excessive air (like when chewing gum), and even spicy food can tickle the nerve, sending the diaphragm into spontaneous contractions. Rapid changes in temperature (like eating hot food with a cold drink), sudden excitement, or stress can also affect this reflex. People with central nervous system disorders or tumors that affect the phrenic nerve can suffer from intractable hiccups that may require medical attention.

What's the best way to treat hiccups? For more persistent hiccups, medication is available to calm the phrenic nerve, though no single drug has been proven particularly effective.

For your everyday, run-of-the-mill hiccups, grandma's remedies are best. Increasing the partial pressure (volume per area) of carbon dioxide — like holding your breath or breathing into a paper bag — stops hiccups for many people, though the mechanism isn't entirely clear. Some people find success in stimulating another nearby nerve, the vagus nerve, by eating dry bread, a spoonful of peanut butter, or other foods that are a bit harder to swallow.

For me, personally, the most effective treatment is swallowing 10 gulps of water while holding my nose — it's probably a combination of increased carbon dioxide and vagus nerve stimulation that does the trick. (It feels weird, but works like a charm every time.)

The World Record for longest hiccups is held by Charles Osborne. The hiccups began in 1922 just as Osborne went to weigh a hog before slaughtering it. “I was hanging a 350 pound hog for butchering.  I picked it up and then I fell down.  I felt nothing, but the doctor said later that I busted a blood vessel the size of a pin in my brain.”

It's thought that this burst vessel affected an area of the brain that helped inhibit hiccups. Unable to find a cure for 68 years, they finally ceased on their own in 1990. He died just a year later. It's estimated that he experienced 430 million hiccups during this time.

How do you cure your hiccups? Let me know in the comments!