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?

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.

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.