October 21, 2016

#BrainBits 7: "What are Migraines, and What Do They Feel Like?"

This is the latest post in my #BrainBits series, where I'll answer your burning neuroscience questions in 60 seconds or less. If you have a question you'd like me to answer, you can e-mail me, tweet me, or submit your questions anonymously here.
Sasha Wolff (Wikimedia Commons)

I am lucky to have never experienced a migraine before. *knocks on wood*

But 15% of the world's population suffers from migraines, and those folks will easily rattle off all of the painful symptoms: pulsating pain — sometimes localized to one side of the head — often accompanied by sensitivity to light, sound, or smell. Some also experience nausea. About 1/3 of migraine sufferers perceive auras before the onset of pain, or brief periods of strange visuals, scents, or confusing thoughts.

In more lay terms, Huffington Post columnist Lisa Belkin once described a migraine as feeling "like you are trying to give birth through your forehead."

But what exactly causes migraines, and how are they different from headaches?

It's important to know that although the brain perceives pain from all parts of the body, the brain itself does not feel pain. The brain lacks nociceptors, or specialized sensory nerve fibers that transmit pain signals, which are present in our skin, muscles, and joints.

Headaches, then, are not pain in the brain, but rather activation of nociceptors located in the layers between the brain and the skull: the pia mater and dura mater (collectively, the meninges):

The pia mater (yellow) and dura mater (gray), collectively called the meninges, cushion and 
protect the brain from the skull. OpenStax (Wikimedia Commons)

As you can see from the image above, these layers are highly vascularized, or contain many blood vessels. Common headaches are triggered by fatigue, stress, head injury, or medications which, one way or another, lead to dilation of blood vessels, blood vessel spasms, or inflammation of the meninges.

While the source of pain in migraines is similar to that of headaches, migraines are actually thought to originate in the brain. Many specialists believe auras are caused by sudden increased, then decreased, neural activity in the cortex (outer layer) of the brain.

The activation of these nerves releases a number of proteins, such as serotonin, which can cause inflammation to the meninges as well as dilate blood vessels. A family of migraine medications called triptans work by constricting blood vessels and blocking serotonin. Many people report that "triggers," such as certain foods or changes in the weather, will reliably cause the onset of their migraines, though it is not entirely clear why this happens.

Do you suffer from migraines? Are there specific things that "trigger"  your migraines? What treatments work for you (or don't work)? Let me know in the comments.

October 13, 2016

[Bringing it Back] #BrainBits: 60-Second Neuroscience - Submit Your Questions!

Last year, I experimented with fun, short posts through a segment called #BrainBits, where I'd answer your burning "why?" questions in a post that would take 60 seconds or less to read.

Hey Paul Studios (Flickr)
You can read all #BrainBits posts here, which include, among others:

  • Why does coffee make me poop?
  • What is déjà vu ?
  • Why do I get hangry?
  • What are hiccups?

I'm bringing it back!

You can e-mail me your questions, tweet me (@GainesOnBrains), comment below, or submit your questions anonymously here

And make sure you're subscribed to Gaines, on Brains (see sidebar on the right) to get my regular blogs, including the #BrainBits posts, sent to your inbox.

Stay neuroscience-y!

October 6, 2016

Scientists Should Advocate for their Own Research

Why (and how) scientists should advocate for their research with journalists and policymakers

Long gone are the days of the lone investigator who discovered a new scientific truth, published the finding in a journal, and continued doing bench research. Nowadays, scientists have to wear any number of different hats: experimenter, data analyst, teacher, mentor, negotiator, financial planner, writer, boss, philosopher, and speaker.

We have to be team players, but also self-motivated. We have to pay meticulous attention to detail while also under- standing how our research fits into the bigger picture. A good scientist performs well in many of these roles, but one person can’t be good at everything.

I am a postdoctoral researcher whose favorite hat is “writer.” It’s exciting to craft my message, put years’ worth of work down on paper, and add my own results to the literature of a decades-old research field. Scientific publications give us the potential to change the status quo in how other researchers approach their own work—and that’s a big deal.

But when we pour all our energy into communicating only with other scientists, we miss the mark on targeting two other crucial audiences who can help us make an even bigger impact: journalists and policymakers.

To read the rest of this op-ed at The Scientist, click here.

August 11, 2016

#PhelpsFace and the Neuroscience of Getting “in the Zone”

Social media exploded earlier this week with a bevy of tweets and memes featuring a rather unimpressed Olympian – and this time, it wasn’t McKayla Maroney.

On Monday night, cameras captured a hooded Michael Phelps appearing to brood and snarl in the direction of South African swimmer Chad le Clos, who was shadowboxing in preparation for the 200-meter butterfly semifinal.

#PhelpsFace. (NBC; gif via Imgur)

Thus, #PhelpsFace was born.

Despite the intense focus we’ve seen since the Sydney games in 2000, Phelps’ ADHD presented him with a struggle early on. As his mother Debbie described in a 2008 article with The New York Times, “In kindergarten I was told by his teacher, ‘Michael can’t sit still, Michael can’t be quiet, Michael can’t focus.’” Attending regular swim practices – sometimes more than four hours’-worth each day – gave him an outlet for his boundless energy and a lesson in self-discipline.

In fact, many of Phelps’ pre-swim rituals align with what scientists have recently been learning about how we focus to get our heads in the game.

June 5, 2016

#PhDin2016: I'm Defending in 2 Days!

It's here, guys.

This 194-page beast went to the committee on May 12. (No, I had nothing more
to say, but another 6 pages would have been awesome.)

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.