The Bacteria that Mold Your Brain

Microbiology, Neuroscience

By Daniel Hass, 4th year Neuroscience PhD student

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”

This phrase, coined by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in the Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste) was over a century ahead of its time.

Food Cheese

Some foods are better by virtue of their microbes. Cheese is one such food, matured by several types of bacteria (Wikimedia)

The commonly held aphorism is true in more ways than one. In one respect, it means that ‘the food you eat becomes a part of your person’,and this has long been known—amino acids from digested proteins are incorporated into our own proteins, and the energetic sources from our diet, such as sugars or fatty acids, are added to our own stores of energy. In another respect, the quote can mean that the food you eat influences ‘who’, or ‘what kind of person’ you are. This interpretation is also true– the substances you consume can alter your brain chemistry, and thus behavior (‘who’ you are), in manners too complex for a single blog post.

I will discuss the ways in which food affects our brains in a four-part series. Each part will examine a critical substance in food (microorganisms, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) and the ways in which it alters or is central to behavior.

This first of these parts concerns a fascinating route by which diet can change the brain, and that is through our microbiome, the ecosystem of microorganisms such as bacteria, archaea, protozoa, fungi, and viruses that live on and interact with our bodies. Each adult has about 1 kg of these microbes, which are highly diverse, cumulatively containing approximately 100 times as many genes as the human genome.

The diversity and composition of these microbes in the gut is strongly influenced by diet.

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

Neuroscience

By: Jordan Gaines Lewis, 5th year student in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

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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?

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

Neuroscience

By: Jordan Gaines Lewis, 5th year student in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

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Shutterstock

A few months ago, my friend 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.

What is Déjà Vu?

Neuroscience

By: Jordan Gaines Lewis, 5th year student in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

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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 is déjà vu, anyway?

C, D, E, F, G, A, Brain: Music as Therapy

Neuroscience

By: Cecilia Bove, 1st year student in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

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Petr Kratochvil (Public Domain)

You may recall from my “Meet a Scientist” interview that I grew up in a music-rich home. I like to say that I can fluently speak Italian, English and Music – because it is, in all respects, a language.

Music can make us feel without saying a single word as much as any intense situation can: being with your special someone, grieving a loss, or handling the stress of an experiment that just does not work. (This is something that every graduate student can relate to!)

But did you now that music may also be an effective medication? Music has been under the spotlight of the scientific community for long time, but now its importance is emerging more and more in neuroscience research.

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

Neuroscience

By: Jordan Gaines Lewis, 5th year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

In March, I 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.

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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. Recently, 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?

Where in the Brain Does Deception Lie?

Neuroscience
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Santa’s favorite reindeer is Rudolph, of course. Source: Jonathan G. Meath (Wikimedia Commons)

By: Dan Hass, 2nd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

When my 8-year old niece asks me what Santa Claus’s favorite reindeer is, I do not tell her that Santa does not actually exist. I try to keep her as happy as possible, and I tell a white lie.

Lying is not an uncommon phenomenon. It is estimated that, on average, Americans lie 1.65 times daily.

While most of these are white lies, a study in the United Kingdom found that approximately one out of every two people tells a self-defined ‘big lie’ every day. Although these data are not evenly distributed (a few people who lie a lot may skew the statistics), deception is a part of our every day life [1].

The Immersive World of Virtual Reality: Why VR is the Ultimate Neuroscience Experiment

Neuroscience

By: Lina Jamis, 2nd year student in the Anatomy Graduate Program

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A virtual reality headset. Source: Maurizio Pesce (Flickr)

The promise of virtual reality has always been an enticing one—slip on this headset and escape to a new place, without ever stepping foot outside of the room.

It’s an experience so unusual, and yet so familiar, as it hijacks our own senses to provide the qualities we might find in reality, but within the confines of the mind. Not only can virtual reality (VR) serve as a powerful medium for gaming and storytelling, but it may ultimately give us further insight into sensorimotor neuroscience and how to use this knowledge to create visually convincing worlds.

Hooked on Pills? There’s a Pill for That…

Neuroscience

By: Andrew Huhn, 4th year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

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Image: Adam from UK (Wikimedia Commons)

Americans are abusing prescription painkillers at an alarming rate.

In 2012, 259 million prescriptions were written for opioid analgesics – that’s enough for every adult in the U.S. to have their own bottle of pills, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Opioid analgesics are a class of drug that includes Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin; it’s quite likely that you or a family member has been prescribed one of these after having surgery.

In addition to providing pain relief, opioid analgesics also activate the brain’s reward system, making it easy to become addicted. Given their similar mechanism of action, prescription opioid use can lead to heroin use. After all, heroin has become significantly less expensive and doesn’t require a doctor’s prescription.

While the current heroin boom is getting a lot of press, prescription opiate addiction gets little attention even though it leads to more overdose deaths per year than heroin and cocaine combined.

But can you fix an addiction to pills…with a pill?

When it Comes to Vision, Men and Women Really Aren’t Seeing Eye to Eye

Biomedical Sciences, Neuroscience

By: Sadie Steffens, 4th year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program

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Luke Jones (Flickr)

The paint color in our master bathroom has been a source of debate since we bought our house. While I am certain that the color is firmly in the purple part of the spectrum, my husband insists that the paint is blue. Period.

Visiting friends have often been asked to weigh in on this debate, and the outcome is fascinatingly similar every time. When asking couples to cast their votes, men instantly declare the color to be blue. Women, on the other hand, typically pause before suggesting something like “periwinkle” or “lavender blue.”

This phenomenon has been played out between men and women time and time again—from selecting clothing to disagreeing at the paint store about whether one hue of blue looks more purple than another. Although you may be tempted to write off this difference as a consequence of cultural conditioning, the true root is physiological.