June 29, 2015

#BrainBits: 60-Second Neuroscience - Submit Your Questions!

I've got a lot on my plate as a graduate student, as you may understand.

Although my goal is to blog at least every two weeks, sometimes that doesn't happen. (Case in point: my last blog was published two months ago.) But back in the day (A.K.A. before I joined a lab), I blogged WEEKLY. And I want to get back into that. So...

I'm introducing a new weekly segment, which will complement my regular posts, called Brain Bits!

My brain is not QUITE this itty-bitty, luckily. #BrainBits. SOCIALIsBETTER (Flickr)
I want to hear your burning neuroscience questions: everything from "Why do I hate the sound of my own voice?" to  "Why do I blush when I'm embarrassed?" My responses to these questions will be short and sweet; you should be able to read them in 60 seconds or less.

(To give you an idea, our first submission is, "Why does coffee make me poop?" Check back next week for the answer!)

You can e-mail me your questions, tweet me (@GainesOnBrains), 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, and the new Brain Bits segment, sent to your inbox.

Stay neuroscience-y!

April 27, 2015

Can Wearing Orange-Tinted Glasses before Bed Improve Sleep? Only One Way to Find Out...

I recently wrote about the terrible sleep habits of the characters in House of Cards. I disapproved of Frank Underwood’s late-night computer work in the Oval Office, his new midnight iPad gaming habit, and Claire taking her laptop to bed with her.

But I must confess my hypocrisy.

Despite my preaching – and despite being a sleep researcher myself – the last thing I do before I flip off the lights and snuggle into my bedsheets is play games on my iPhone.

I know, I’m bad – but I also know I’m not the only guilty person here.

Chhe (Wikimedia Commons)
Although evidence suggests that the blue light emanating from phones, tablets, laptops, televisions and e-readers can affect the quality of our sleep – in turn affecting our health and well-being – many of us can’t help logging in and tapping away when we should be winding down. A Time/Qualcomm poll of 5,000 people worldwide suggests that nearly a quarter of those between the ages of 18 and 24 generally don’t sleep as well because of technology. Even worse, 40-75% of folks across all age groups report keeping their phones within reach while they sleep at night.

But there might be a solution. Earlier this month, orange-tinted glasses, or “blue blockers,” were touted by the New York Times as a good option for those who simply can’t avoid technology before bed.

As a concerned scientist, I decided to do an experiment on myself. I hopped onto Amazon, bought an $8 pair of orange glasses, and formulated my research plan. Without changing any of my other habits, would wearing these glasses an hour before bed improve the quality of my sleep?

April 9, 2015

Why Does Hodor Keep Hodor-ing? Neuroscience Explains

Hodor hodor hodor. Hodor hodor? Hodor. Hodor-hodor. Hodor!

Oh, um, excuse me. Did you catch what I said?

Fans of the hit HBO show Game of Thrones, the fifth season of which premieres this Sunday, know what I’m referencing, anyway. Hodor is the brawny, simple-minded stableboy of the Stark family in Winterfell. His defining characteristic, of course, is that he only speaks a single word: “Hodor.”

But those who read the A Song of Ice and Fire book series by George R R Martin may know something that the TV fans don’t: his name isn’t actually Hodor. According to his great-grandmother Old Nan, his real name is Walder. “No one knew where ‘Hodor’ had come from,” she says, “but when he started saying it, they started calling him by it. It was the only word he had.”

Whether he intended it or not, Martin created a character who is a textbook example of someone with a neurological condition called expressive aphasia.

March 5, 2015

The House of Cards Characters Have Terrible Sleep Hygiene

It’s entirely possible that I’ve been staying up too late this week. After leaving the lab at the end of the day, I’ll head home to binge on the political drama House of Cards, the third season of which was dumped onto our Netflix queues last Friday.

They'd be better off just going to bed. (Tumblr)
Simultaneously, the National Sleep Foundation is also sponsoring Sleep Awareness Week from March 2nd to 8th, which makes me feel guilty for how poor my sleep hygiene has been lately. But perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on myselfafter all, I’m not the Leader of the Free World who needs to make rational, clear-headed decisions about my country on a daily basis.

Since the first episode of the show, I’ve been pretty appalled by the Underwoods’ poor sleep habits. In the spirit of Sleep Awareness Week, here are three simple sleep hygiene rules that Frank and Claire would be wise to follow.

February 18, 2015

This is Your Brain When You Give Up Sugar for Lent

Can you resist? (Shuttershock)
Anyone who knows me also knows that I have a huge sweet tooth.

I always have. My friend and fellow graduate student Andrew is equally afflicted, and living in Hershey, Pennsylvania—the “Chocolate Capital of the World”—doesn’t help either of us.

But Andrew is braver than I am. Last year, he gave up sweets for Lent.

Are you abstaining from sweets for Lent this year, too? Here’s what you can expect over the next 40 days.

February 10, 2015

How an ADHD Drug Works to Combat Binge-Eating

Maria Raquel Cochez (Wikimedia Commons)
Last Friday, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved the use of lisdexamfetamine dimesylate for treatment of binge-eating disorder. Licensed under the brand name Vyvanse, lisdexamfetamine is the first and only FDA-approved medication for this condition.

But Vyvanse has already been on the market since 2007 for once-daily usage in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and adults.

How does this drug act on two seemingly distinct conditions?

January 30, 2015

3 Ways Being a Science Communicator has Made Me a Better Scientist

Hold still while I place the electrodes on your head!
My first research presentation in college is forever etched into my memory.

It was the end of our fall semester biology lab, and my group met in the library the week beforehand to prepare our PowerPoint. I was in charge of making slides with background information.

For our project, my lab group had measured polyphenol oxidase—an enzyme involved in the browning of fruit—in three different apple varieties.  As it turns out, every group had done this experiment. It was the coolest thing we’d learned how to do that semester, after all.

So I wanted our group to stand out. I interspersed the boring, informational slides with a little storytelling, and the experiment took on a life of its own:

It’s almost time for the annual county fair, and you want to make the best apple pie! You know that the key to success is using an apple that won’t brown right after you cut it. Which variety will get you the blue ribbon?

My group was a bit skeptical, but they ultimately buckled under my persistence.

We got our grade a week later—an A. But the professor wrote a note underneath: “Good presentation, but a bit gimmicky. Don’t do that next time.”

I was deflated. While my approach, in retrospect, may not have been the best for a class assignment, I knew that what I had done wasn’t inherently bad or wrong—I was telling a story.

Scientists are often told to reach out to general audiences about their research for the public’s benefit. We need to establish trust! Taxpayers deserve to understand where their money is going! We need to clear up misconceptions about GMOs and vaccines and climate change!

While these arguments are absolutely true, many scientists find this hard to do. Science communication can become a time-consuming side job. And for many, such a responsibility to the general public can be extremely daunting.

But it’s okay for scientists to practice their communication skills for non-philanthropic reasons, too. Despite my initial college lab experience, telling stories as a science communicator today has made me a much, much better scientist in a few unexpected ways.