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?

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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.

Humans are Wired for Prejudice, but That Doesn’t Have to be the End of the Story

Neuroscience

By: Caitlin Millett, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

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Image credit: CC0 Public Domain/Pixabay

Humans are highly social creatures. Our brains have evolved to allow us to survive and thrive in complex social environments. Accordingly, the behaviors and emotions that help us navigate our social sphere are entrenched in networks of neurons within our brains.

Social motivations, such as the desire to be a member of a group or to compete with others, are among the most basic human drives. In fact, our brains are able to assess “in-group” (us) and “out-group” (them) membership within a fraction of a second. This ability, once necessary for our survival, has largely become a detriment to society.

Understanding the neural network controlling these impulses, and those that temper them, may shed light on how to resolve social injustices that plague our world.

Paying Attention: Why You Want to Have a Filter

Neuroscience

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

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Can you pay attention to the movie, or do you just hear people chomping on popcorn? Image credit: hashi photo (Wikimedia Commons)

At any given moment, we are constantly bombarded by signals from at least four of the five senses.

The visual system is constantly processing our surroundings. The auditory system is stimulated by all of the many miniscule sounds that compose our environment. We’re taking in all the smells around us at any given moment, and we’re constantly feeling the clothes on our skin. Even within one sensory system, there is an enormous amount of data that gets processed.

With this onslaught of input, how do we manage to not go completely insane? The key is that we pay attention to only a small proportion of that information and throw much of it away. This process is known as selective filtering or selective attention, and most people do it all the time.  Image watching a movie at a theater; if you’re quite focused on the film, you’re probably not noticing the sound of squeaking seats, crunchy popcorn, or even the air conditioning whirring through the vents.

Although there are several regions of the brain involved in each sensation, the part of the brain involved in selective filtering is where all of these senses intersect. 

How Fancy Labels Fool Us: The Neuroscience Behind Bias

Neuroscience

By: Caitlin Millett, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

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Image credit: Neesa Rhajbhandari (Wikimedia Commons)

The holiday season is fast approaching, and that means it’s time for gift buying. With each passing season, finding the perfect gift for loved ones seems to become more and more difficulta phenomenon not unrelated to the seemingly exponential growth in buying options each year.

So how do we do it? Many of us would like to believe that our decision-making is based in logic and objectivity. Clearly you’ve chosen the coolest plaid neckerchief for your hipster cousin—you got the thing at an Urban Outfitters! Neuroscience reveals that deciding what we prefer based on a few options is not always based on inherent qualities, but rather is highly biased based on expectations.

Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder: People who get SAD in the Summer

Neuroscience

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

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Summertime sadness. (Image credit: Pixabay)

Snow-lovers rejoice—winter is coming!

And no, this isn’t an allusion to Game of Thrones. With the end of Daylight Savings, the days are becoming darker earlier, which for some can mean the onset of the winter blues. The medical term for this is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a condition caused by a mélange of changes in our biological clocks, serotonin levels, and melatonin production, all of which affect our mood.

While many of us are familiar with SAD, there are, in fact, people that get SAD in reverse. For a small group of people, the dark days of winter don’t elicit depression, but renewed vigor and improved mood.

Why Does Hershey’s New Logo Look Like the Poo Emoji? Neuroscience Explains.

Neuroscience

By: Jordan Gaines Lewis, 4th year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

Penn State College of Medicine is located in Hershey, the “Sweetest Place on Earth.” We’re surrounded by references to chocolate everyday—from the smell of it in the air to Kiss-shaped streetlamps to chocolate-brown paved roads. It’s a pretty sweet life.

So when The Hershey Company unveiled their new logo last month, I didn’t find anything unusual about it.

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Credit: The Hershey Co.

That is, of course, until the Internet began comparing it to the poo emoji, popularized by Apple.  Even after seeing the comparison, I still didn’t know what the big stink was about, so to speak.

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Poo Emoji (WonderHowTo)

Why did some people immediately see a big, steaming turd when, obviously, it’s supposed to be a drop of chocolate topped with the iconic Kiss flag? Actually, understanding the cognitive processes behind visual recognition can explain everything from Hershey Kiss poop emojis to why we perceive animals in clouds and Mother Mary’s face in a piece of toast.

Why You Should Care about Auditory Myosin

Neuroscience

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

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Wikimedia Commons

As much as we may enjoy denying it, our hearing is slowly, but surely, leaving us. In fact, considering how we often may follow the adage  “louder is better,” we’re probably headed for hearing aids sooner than we think. (That goes doubly for you, Skillrex fans).

…which is why we must thank our stereocilia and the proteins that are tasked with maintaining them.

I’d like to introduce you to myosin: the protein responsible for muscle contraction, force generation, maintenance of posture, the beating of our hearts, and oh hey, busting a move on the dance floor. Myosin proteins were originally thought to be restricted to muscle cells (hence, myo, meaning “originating in muscle”), but research has revealed that not all myosins are created equal. In fact, there is a large superfamily of myosins that, while sharing the same basic properties, are distributed in other tissue.

Smells Ring Bells: How Smells Can Trigger Emotions and Memories

Neuroscience

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

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A day in the life.

Autumn has arrived, bringing with it some of my favorite scents:  bonfire smoke, pumpkin spice (DON’T JUDGE!), and, most of all, crisp autumn air. Stepping outside on an October morning and breathing instantly transports me back in time.

I’m at Penn State. It’s a cool, crisp morning and there’s not a cloud in the sky as I walk up Shortlidge Road. I’m a freshman on my way to class and I’m a little nervous, but overall I’m excited to be in a new place on my own and for the future.

That complex emotion and memory can be triggered by a simple sensory cue:  the smell of autumn air. How do smells trigger such strong emotions and memories?

Why Graduate Students Should Meditate

Neuroscience

By: Caitlin Millett, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
― Aristotle

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Moyan Brenn (Flickr)

Meditation is an ancient practice dating back at least three millennia. It’s a fundamental component of many Eastern religious traditions and belief systems including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism, to name just a few.

The term meditation refers to a broad variety of practices meant to clear the mind and build compassion and kindness. It may also ease some health issues, such as high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and stress. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a component of the National Institutes of Health, notes that:

“Meditation may be practiced for many reasons, such as to increase calmness and physical relaxation, to improve psychological balance, to cope with illness, or to enhance overall health and well-being.”

Due to its purported benefits, recent decades have seen increased interest and additional funding for research on meditation and mindfulness. Moreover, mindfulness has reached an almost fad-like status in the Western world due to its potential positive effects on health.

In December, Penn State Hershey Medical Center offered a free seven-week class to learn meditation. Similarly, the Penn State Hershey University Fitness Center recently held their first ever meditation sessions. But for most of us, especially those of us in the sciences, the question still lingers- is there data supporting the benefits of meditation?