Your Brain on Fiction

Neuroscience

By: Lina Jamis, 1st year student in the Anatomy Graduate Program

BrainBook-300x199People love stories—we build social networks around them, we recount them to our friends and families at the end of our day, we whisper them in the dark to our children before they sleep. Stories are all around us, even in the most unlikely of places. It’s a human tradition with an effect on the brain that might explain why we love them so much.

Researchers have long known that classical language regions like Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are heavily involved in the interpretation of spoken and written word, respectively.

But what science has come to realize recently is that fiction stimulates many other parts of the brain, suggesting why the experience of reading can elicit such strong empathy. (You know you cried a little when Dumbledore died).

In fact, it seems that the brain does not make much distinction between reading about an experience and encountering an experience in real life. In each case, the same brain regions are stimulated.

“Clarifying” Neural Circuitry: A New Technique to Image the Brain

Neuroscience

By: Daniel Hass, 1st year PhD student in the Neuroscience Program

brain-functions-1orm1qfThe brain is complicated.

There are hundreds of structures, layers, and cell types interacting with each other in complex ways in order for us to perform simple tasks, such as maintaining heart beat or moving a finger.  Much of this complexity comes from the trillions of connections between brain cells.  These connections are not only the basis for movement and perception, but also for thought and behavior.

A significant portion of neuroscience research is devoted towards mapping the connections between different areas of the brain.  In fact, this is an area of research that has seen an increase in funding due to President Obama’s BRAIN initiative. If we know how neurons (brain cells) are wired, we may be able to determine what is different in the brains of individuals with neurological disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.

This is a pretty tall order for neuroscientists, and it is likely going to be years before the first human “connectome,” or map of all the neuronal connections in a human brain, is published.

The greatest roadblock of all, of course, is that the brain is 3-dimensional.

Prosopagnosia: Why Some are Blind to Faces

Neuroscience

By: Jordan Gaines Lewis, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Program

ProsopagnosiaA few years ago, I had an hour-long conversation with one of my college professors in his office discussing his course that had just wrapped up. We veered off-topic toward the end of our talk, broaching the subjects of his grad school days, cooking hobby, and my blogging.

Less than an hour later, I was loitering around the college’s entrance in my coat, ready to go home for the day. I spotted Dr. L locking up his office and gave him a wave.

He eyed me strangely and walked a couple steps closer before returning the greeting. “Oh, didn’t recognize you in the coat. You were wearing green earlier. Have a good night, Jordan.”

It would have been a puzzling encounter if I didn’t already know about his strange affliction.

Making Mirrors: Our Brain’s Reaction to Familiar Movements

Uncategorized

By: Amanda White, Research Technologist in the Department of Psychiatry

Serena_Williams_US_Open_2013The Philadelphia Eagles are an exciting NFL team to watch because you never know which team is going to show up: the one that puts up 30+ points, or the one that loses pitifully to the New York Giants.

Watching a tennis match is just as exciting as watching a football game, but I find the experience much more vivid. As a tennis player, I recall the feel of new rubber tape on my racket, the short “pop” sound of a volley, and the sharp smell of a fresh tennis ball. During the Australian Open, I watched Serena bounce the ball a few times before looking across the net to her opponent and I felt the same anticipation before I serve in a match. As the point progressed, I felt like I was the one hitting forehand after forehand, and finally a backhanded winner at the net.

My own experiences seem to make watching tennis quite different from watching other sports. So what happens in our brains when we observe athletes of our own sport, or dancers of our own style?

“How Can I Join a Lab as an Undergraduate?”

General

By: Caitlin Millett, 2nd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Program

girls in a labThere are many benefits to participating in undergraduate research. In most cases, especially in STEM fields, writing a research thesis is a requirement for graduation. Moreover, it’s necessary for a strong application to graduate or medical school.

That said, there are many aspects of choosing a lab that can be quite nerve racking. In order to avoid common pitfalls on the path to a thesis, students should be aware of the most important aspects of this process.

Here are a few gems of wisdom for a lab-bound undergrad…

From Sacks to Suicidality: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and the NFL

Neuroscience

By: Jordan Gaines Lewis, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

2006_Pro_Bowl_tackleAh, football. The great American pastime.

The fresh cut grass and crisply-painted yard lines. The sound of helmets clashing in an epic stack of large men vying for a single ball. Stands packed high with thousands upon thousands of crazed, prideful, body-painted fanatics. The cheerleaders. The roar of the crowd. Chips, dip, and booze. Hilarious touchdown dances. Dementia, confusion, and depression.

Wait, what?

That last bit may not be present on game day, but for many football players, it’s brewing all along—with every clash, tackle, and fall.

Cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, are only now beginning to unfold with postmortem diagnoses and early symptoms of memory loss, depression, confusion, and aggression being reported by former NFL players.

And with the recent settlement involving 4,500+ former footballers against the NFL, the topic of CTE has quickly shifted from being more than just a medical issue.

The Surprising Effects of Exercise on Memory

Neuroscience

By: Amanda White, research technologist in the Department of Psychiatry

Running_Man_Kyle_CassidyNow that winter has descended upon central Pennsylvania, all I want to do is burrow into a pile of blankets and drink tea. But in the weeks ahead, I have to finish up projects, get together with family and friends, write cards, shop for last-minute gifts, and bake 6 different kinds of cookies.

There’s a lot to going on during the holiday season, but exercise may help you keep track of things in ways you might not expect.

How Does Animal Research Advance Medicine?

Biomedical Sciences

By: Ross Keller, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program

Animal,Porkey Pig, Lobund-Wistar

A question was submitted to our blog asking: “How does animal research advance medicine?” It is an important question, and I will do my best to answer it.

The average human life expectancy has increased dramatically over the past 100 years. In 1900, most did not live past 50. Now, most will live to see their 75th birthday. This increase is largely due to advances in medicine that would not have been possible without animal research.

In fact, many scientific organizations as well as the World Health Organization and the United States Department of Health and Human Services estimate that animal research has played a part in almost every major medical advancement over the past century. This fact alone underscores the importance that animal research has played in medicine.

Despite all the benefits of animal research in advancing medicine, many opponents of animal research ask the question, “What gives humans the right to use another creature for our own advancement?” It’s true that this is not a question with an easy answer. Every person has his or her own values and is entitled to his or her own opinion on that question.

Alcohol, Sleep, and Why You Might Re-think that Nightcap

Neuroscience

By: Jordan Gaines Lewis, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Program

1“Alcohol makes you sleepy.”

We’ve all heard it. Many of us have experienced it. A few of us even swear by it—enough to ceremonially partake in a glass or two of wine before crawling into bed.

A nightcap.

In fact, a little booze has been experimentally (and anecdotally) demonstrated to help us fall asleep faster and increase slow-wave, or deep, sleep in the first half of the night.

But its effect on other aspects of sleep—notably, the second half of the night—leaves little to be desired.

What causes alcohol’s strange and dichotomous effect on the sleeping brain? And the real question—do you accept the nightcap or not?

Goodbye Sun; Hello SAD

Neuroscience

By: Caitlin Millett, 2nd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Program

SAD_manIt’s that time of year again- the end of daylight savings and the beginning of the dark season. As is ominously stated in Game of Thrones: Winter. Is. Coming.

While the majority of us look forward to seasonal festivities, millions can also expect feelings of depression, fatigue, irritability and poor sleep.

This form of mental illness, commonly known as the winter blues, is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is disproportionately represented in populations furthest from the equator. It is estimated that 1-2% of North Americans have a mood disorder with a seasonal pattern, with 10% of New Englanders versus 2% of Floridians affected. Symptoms of SAD include feelings of hopelessness, low concentration, sluggishness, social withdrawal, unhappiness and irritability.

Decades of research has uncovered the culprit behind this debilitating illness: lack of sunlight and disruption of circadian rhythms.