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

What are Hiccups?

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!

October 6, 2015

How Much Can You Really Learn While You're Asleep?

In Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, Polish boy Reuben Rabinovitch falls asleep next to a radio receiver. When he wakes up, he is able to recite the entire broadcast. He has no idea what any of it means, though – it’s all in English.

Maria Zarnayova/EPA
Countless articles today claim that you can actually learn music, hone your foreign language skills, or cram for tomorrow’s math exam during sleep. And there is a whole industry trading on this idea. Subliminal message tapes, popularized by self-help guru Tony Robbins, promise to help you stop smoking, lose weight, and even brush up your golf skills and find love – all the while catching some shut eye.

The big sell of “sleep learning” is seductive – how lovely it would be to be productive while we lie like lifeless lumps in bed. But is it actually based on any evidence?

Read the rest at The Guardian here.

October 1, 2015

What the Heck is Déjà Vu? Why Do I Get It and Some People Never Do?

Erika Wittlieb (Pixabay)
What is déjà vu?  Many of us know the feeling. You'll be going about your day, minding your own business, folding some laundry...nothing out of the ordinary. Suddenly a sensation of familiarity washes over you, and you're completely aware that it's happening. I've been here before. Except you haven't. Or have I? You might try to think back and pinpoint when you'd experienced this moment before. But just as quickly as the feeling hits you, it's gone again.

Did you predict the future? Were you seeing something from a past life? What the heck is déjà vu, anyway?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, déjà vu (French for "already seen") is, scientifically, pretty poorly understood. There are a few theories, however:

University of Bristol
  • Déjà vu may be the result of some sort of "mismatch" in how we're simultaneously sensing and perceiving the world around us. Perhaps we smell something familiar, for example, and our mind is instantly transported to the first time we smelled it. (It's a vague theory, though, and doesn't explain why most déjà vu episodes don't reflect true past events.)
  • Déjà vu may be a fleeting malfunctioning between the long- and short-term circuits in the brain. The information our brain takes in about its surroundings may "shortcut" its way straight to long-term memory, bypassing typical storage transfer mechanisms. When we have a moment of déjà vu, it feels as though we're experiencing something from our distant past. 
  • A region of the brain called the rhinal cortex, involved in detecting familiarity, may be inexplicably activated without actually activating memory (hippocampal) circuits. That may explain why déjà vu episodes feel so non-specific when we try to figure out where and when we had previously experienced a particular moment. In fact, some patients with epilepsy reliably experience déjà vu at the beginning of a seizure. For these individuals, experimental stimulation of the rhinal cortex — and not so much the hippocampus itself — induces déjà vu.

Déjà vu is estimated to occur in 60-70% of people, and most commonly in those between the ages of 15 and 25 years. (Why? No idea.) Interestingly, I had previously written about déjà vu years ago out of my own curiosity on the matter, having experienced it fairly frequently. I'm now 26, though, and can't remember the last time I had an episode.

Are any of these theories correct? We may never know. After all, an episode of déjà vu is completely unexpected and, for most of us, extremely rare. Empirical research on the topic is next to impossible.

The most parsimonious explanation, then, is likely the following:

What about you?
Do you experience déjà vu?
Let us know
In this anonymous poll!

September 11, 2015

Why We’re Obsessed with Pumpkin Spice Everything, According to Science

It was a humid, sticky 90 degrees when I made a quick trip to the grocery store in shorts and a tank top earlier this week. Despite the heat, however, the store clearly wanted me to think fall.

'Tis the season. ParentingPatch (Wikimedia Commons)
Weaving in and out of each aisle, I was inundated with row upon row of pumpkin spice M&Ms, pumpkin spice yogurt, pumpkin spice Oreos, pumpkin spice cereal, pumpkin spice beer, pumpkin spice cookies, pumpkin spice bagels, pumpkin spice Pop-Tarts, pumpkin spice popcorn, pumpkin spice hummus, pumpkin spice creamer for my pumpkin spice coffee…

At the risk of sounding any more like Forrest Gump's shrimp-obsessed friend Bubba, let’s just say that we’ve all gone a little mad. And with the official release of everyone’s favorite – the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte – this past Tuesday, it’s time we ask: why are we so obsessed with pumpkin spice everything?

August 28, 2015

Why Do We Feel 'Pins and Needles' When our Appendages Fall Asleep?

Medical Treasure
We've all experienced the strange sensation. Maybe it's when your alarm goes off in the morning and you realize you can't feel your arm to shut it off. Or when your legs are folded into a pretzel on the floor while playing Barbie with your kid and you can't stand back up. You give your dead appendages a shake, and suddenly you feel a surge of pins and needles. What causes that feeling?

There's actually a medical term for it  – paresthesia – defined as the tingling sensation caused by pressure or damage to peripheral nerves.

Don't pinch these! Gray's Anatomy
(Wikimedia Commons)
It occurs when there's prolonged pressure on a limb, like your arm positioned awkwardly under your head while sleeping or sitting cross-legged on the floor. The limb "falls asleep," either due to (1) arteries being compressed, thus blocking blood flow of oxygen and glucose to feed the nerves, or (2) directly pinching nerve pathways, causing normal neurotransmission to slow or cease.

Although your limbs may feel lifeless, your brain is receiving a signal of pain, saying "change your position already, idiot!" When you finally free your limb, the sensation of pain intensifies as blood returns to the area and nerves begin firing regularly. The "pins and needles" sensation occurs as certain areas nerve fibers receive blood nutrients and begin re-firing before others. Eventually, after a few seconds, equilibrium is established again.

A common misconception is that blood flow is blocked entirely to the affected limb when it "falls asleep." If that were true, we'd be experiencing a much more serious medical problem. Luckily, the 50,000-60,000 miles-worth of capillaries in our bodies ensure that our other tissues stay satiated and healthy. It would be as though a tourniquet were applied to a limb, and that's simply not what's happening.

Prolonged, regular compression to nerves can result in a more long-term sensation of "pins and needles," such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Consult a doctor if pain, tingling, and numbness is not relieved when you change body position.

Now, I'm going to undo my leg from under me (as I always do when I write) and go for a short walk to wake it back up. OUCH. Sometimes I never learn.

August 12, 2015

Why Do I Get Hangry (Angry When Hungry)?

Niklas Hellerstedt (Flickr)
Why do we get hangry?  One lovely fall day a few years ago, my now-husband (I'm not sure why he married me after this) almost left me on the side of the road. We had just left a Penn State football game, and I was H-U-N-G-R-Y.

My resulting behavior was far from what you might consider "ladylike," much less "civilized." I won't even re-type the words that were spoken. Eventually, a pit stop for a burger and fries managed to tame my inner beast.

What causes the sensation of "hanger" – the phenomenon of feeling angry and short-tempered when hungry? Coincidentally, fellow The Conversation writer and obesity/nutrition researcher Dr. Amanda Salis recently covered this topic here. Do check out her article for details, as I'll be mostly summarizing below.

Basically, three major factors are thought to contribute to our bad tempers when we're famished:

Glucose metabolism. Mikael Häggström (Wikimedia Commons)
1. When we eat, carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars, one of which is glucose. Right after a meal, the levels of glucose in our blood are high. Over time, though, blood-glucose levels drop. Eventually, if these levels fall far enough, your brain will perceive it as life-threatening. Unlike other organs, which have an energy back-up, your brain relies solely on glucose as a fuel source and requires a continuous supply. In fact, despite accounting for only 2% of your body's mass, your brain is estimated to use up 20-23% of your body's energy intake throughout the day, even at rest. Low blood glucose, obviously, signals, "imminent death! Act now!"

2. To our other organs, low glucose ramps up hormones that act to increase glucose in the body. Among these are epinephrine and cortisol, which are synthesized in the adrenal glands. These are both stress hormones, released when our body perceives threat, like a lion chasing us or an organic chemistry exam being handed out in class. That's enough to change someone's mood for the worse, right?

3. As it turns out, anger and hunger don't only share many of the same letters, but they're also controlled by similar genes. One of these genes produces a protein called neuropeptide Y, which not only stimulates eating behavior, but also regulates anger and aggression. Long story short, I probably had pretty high levels of neuropeptide Y after that football game.

What about you?
Do you get hangry, too?
Let us know
In this anonymous poll!

July 29, 2015

When is the Best Time of Day to Keep a Diary?

For over 15 years now, I’ve faithfully kept a diary. Every night, from age 11 until my senior year of college, I snuggled into my bedsheets and rehashed the day’s events before nodding off to sleep. Even though I’m more likely to scribble down my thoughts just once or twice a week nowadays, I’ve found that writing in a diary before bed is a fun way to capture my memories – no matter how frivolous – to enjoy again years down the road.

Now a new study, published recently in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, suggests that my nightly routine might help with something else: being able to recall a specific day’s events from memory weeks later.

Importantly, however, I may be at a greater advantage than some diarists because I typically write in my diary just before hitting the pillow, instead of waiting until the next morning.

Read more of my guest post with the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog here.

July 15, 2015

Why Do I Only Remember Certain Things in Certain Places?

Why do I only remember certain things in certain places?  I'm glad you asked, because this happens to me all the time. I'll think about something, get off the couch and go to the kitchen to do whatever I told myself I needed to do, then completely lose my train of thought. Why did I come in here, anyway?

Man Vyi (Wikimedia Commons)
Funny enough, psychologists have actually studied this.

In a 2011 paper, Gabriel Radvansky and colleagues from the University of Notre Dame had participants play a computer game. In a virtual room, they were instructed to pick up an object from a table and take it to another table. The objects varied in color and shape. Importantly, as long as the participant was "carrying" the object, it was invisible to them.

Sometimes the participants' video game characters simply had to cross the room to put the object down. Other times, they had to walk through a virtual doorway to get to the table.

At random times throughout the experiment, participants were asked what object they were currently carrying. Interestingly, walking through a virtual doorway resulted in less accurate and slower responses than when they simply needed to cross a room.

But why? The authors suggest that we keep information in our working memory for as long as we consider it relevant. But when something related to the context of our memory changes — like the room we're in when we think about something — the memory must no longer be important enough for us to remember. Our brains probably think they're helping out by purging that memory for us. This is consistent with the hypothesis that, in general, recently-formed memories are extremely vulnerable to many interfering forces if they have not yet had a chance to consolidate.

To answer the broader question: we associate certain memories with certain places, and that's how we make sense of all the input flooding into our noggins. Our brains have incredible storage capacity, but they can only do so much. (Elephants* never forget, though.)

Do you forget more
When you walk through a door?
Let us know
In this anonymous poll!

July 8, 2015

The Psychology of Jimmy Kimmel’s “Lie Witness News”

ABC/Jimmy Kimmel Live
If you’re not familiar with Jimmy Kimmel Live’s segment “Lie Witness News,” you’re missing out on a pretty fascinating (and pretty hilarious) psychology experiment.

The premise is this: Kimmel’s staff takes to the streets of L.A. as roving reporters, questioning pedestrians about recent stories in the news. These stories, however, are…not quite right, to say the least.

Take last Friday’s Independence Day-themed “Lie Witness News” (you can see the whole video at the end of the post) where a “reporter” asks a man if he’d be watching “President Obama’s planned 4th of July confederate flag burning with the last surviving Tuskegee Airman and the Wu Tang Clan.”

“I will,” the man replies with a straight face.
“Have you heard about that?”
“I have.”
“Are you excited for it?”
He replies, “A little.”

The reactions of the interviewees are fascinating. Without flinching, they always have an opinion on the matter, and apparently — somehow — they’ve always heard the story from another source beforehand.

But why aren’t people thinking twice about these ridiculous questions? Why does this segment work so well?

Why Does Coffee Make Me Poop?

Free Stock Photos
Why does coffee make me poop?  Come on, fess up. It happens to the best of us. In fact, I just finished my morning mug, and...anyway, you get the picture.

If a cup of joe makes you go, you're not alone – 29% of people have the "desire to defecate" after drinking coffee, according to this 1990 paper published in the journal Gut. In addition to the survey, the study authors studied bowel motility in 14 subjects before and after drinking caffeinated coffee, decaffeinated coffee, or hot water using a manometry probe (fun!).

Common sense suggests that, like its stimulating effects on the brain, caffeine must also act on the muscles of the colon, resulting in peristalsis (coordinated contraction/relaxation of the GI tract that cause bowel movements). But the results suggested something else.
Peristalsis. Adrignola (Wikimedia Commons)
When asked, 6 subjects who drink coffee and 4 who drank decaf said they felt they could defecate afterward, compared to no subjects who had hot water.

Eight of the 14 subjects who had claimed that coffee typically induces the urge to purge showed increased bowel activity within four minutes of drinking coffee. This continued for at least 30 minutes. But interestingly, a similar increase was seen in those who drank decaf, suggesting that a compound in coffee other than caffeine may be responsible.

Interestingly, 63% of those who claimed that coffee makes them go were women, which may be supported by research suggesting that women are generally more sensitive to distention than men, and are more likely to suffer from irritable bowel syndrome.

What about you?
Does coffee make you wanna poo?
Let us know

(*The rhyming was not intended, but hey, it works.)

July 3, 2015

Orange is the New Bleak: What the SHU Can Do to Your Brain

The inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary, the fictional setting for the Netflix TV series Orange is the New Black, are not shy women. 

They’ve landed in prison for murder, fraud, stalking, drug-smuggling, theft, and political activism. They do illegal activities behind the officers’ backs. They make their opinions known loud and clear to one another. And they’re not opposed to throwing a few punches, if duty calls.

But all will cease if you threaten to send them to the SHU. Why?


The SHU (pronounced “shoe”), or “security housing unit,” is a separate prison facility designed to isolate inmates from any human contact. While sometimes used to protect the prisoner from harm by others or to themselves (to implement suicide watch, for example), it’s often used as punishment for violating prison regulations. At last count, it’s been estimated that over 80,000 prisoners in the U.S. are housed in the SHU – more than any other democratic country. And while inmates in minimum security may be held in the SHU for a few days at most, those in maximum security prisons can be in solitary for as long as five years.

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.