Category Archives: science

neuroscience haiku

WhoseBrainIsIt.com

 

 

 

An exploration of how the brain works.

Neuroscience haiku
by Leena Prasad

 

Blood-brain barrier
Microwaves, radiation
Open sesame.

Open sesame, in this haiku, refers to the dangerous break between the blood-brain barrier. This potentially fatal outcome can occur from exposure to microwave and radiation. This, and other, haiku in Eric Chulder’s, The Little Book of Neuroscience Haiku, deliver a quick, entertaining, and simple way to learn about the brain.

Every page in the book contains a haiku with a short explanation. For this haiku Chulder says: “THE BLOOD-BRAIN BARRIER, created by tight-fitting endothelial cells that surround blood vessels, limits materials in the blood from entering the brain. The blood-brain barrier can be broken down by microwaves and radiation, permitting the entry of chemicals into the brain’s blood supply.” The explanation is as succinct as the haiku itself.

Eric Chudler, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist at the University of Washington and the executive director of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering. He also hosts the website Neuroscience for Kids at http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/neurok.html. Dr. Chulder’s discusses his approach in writing this book at haikuHoopla.com, where his answers are as precise as the contents of his book.

The blood-brain barrier poem is from the “Places” collection in the book. The Little Book of Neuroscience Haiku is organized into three sections: places, things, and people. Places references locations in the brain. Things is about things that interact with the brain. People, of course, are people who have contributed to neuroscience as scientists, writers, artists, etc.

Excerpts from the book:

Things
Use a neural net
In the absence of a brain
To catch jellyfish.
A JELLYFISH has a nervous system of interconnected nerve cells (a neural net), but no brain. The nerve net conducts impulses around the entire body of the jellyfish. The strength of a behavioral response is proportional to the stimulus strength. In other words, the stronger the stimulus, the larger the response.
People
Tremors in aged
Essay on shaking palsy
Writes James Parkinson.
In 1817, James Parkinson published a manuscript titled “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy” to describe tremor (shaking) and other symptoms of a disorder that now bears his name (Parkinson’s disease).

Borrowing from a traditional Japanese poetic form to present neuroscience, is a unique approach for expanding the horizons of knowledge about the brain. It is also a suitable format for quick flips while waiting at the doctor’s office, waiting for a train, waiting in line, etc. If you are suffering from information overload, this book is a nice change of pace for learning about the nervous system in short bursts of reading.

Indulge your brain
Feed it some haiku
about itself.


To read more about the brain, go to whoseBrainIsIt.com. To read other material from Leena, go to fishRidingABike.com.

WhoseBrainIsIt: Ready to be tested?

WhoseBrainIsIt.comHow does the brain work? Using real and fictional characters to setup a story framework, I write about the science of the human (and sometimes animal) mind. I am a journalist rather than a neuroscientist so my approach is exploratory.

Click here to take a 10-question quiz which covers some of the topics I have discussed in my articles. To explore the subjects further, use the site search form at Brain Stories to find the relevant articles by using keywords from the questions and answers (e.g. enter “turmeric in the search engine to learn more about question #4).

Whose Brain Is It?

 

 

 

 

Presented within the flow of the lives of real people and fictional characters, this is a monthly exploration of how parts of the brain work.

Unpredictable

by Leena Prasad

 

Clyde is sitting in front of a large white canvas. He starts to throw random colors onto the canvas and within a few minutes, an image starts to emerge. Several hours later, a rough draft of a painting is taking shape.

“Clyde, honey, you have a doctor’s appointment in forty-five minutes.” His wife, Irene, stands at the door watching him for few minutes before she finally interrupts.

As he heads out the door, she wonders once again how her husband’s mind works. As a research scientist, her work is so different than his that she is often in awe of her husband’s casual creative leaps of mind.

Illustration by Leena Prasad

Irene has read a little bit about how the brain works. She knows that axons are the transport lines between brain neurons and they are protected by a material called the myelin sheath. White matter is the collection of axons and the thickness of the myelin sheaths determine the density of the white matter.  White matter carries messages across the brain.

Irene reads about research done by Dr. Rex Jung, a neuroscientist who studies creativity. According to his findings, the white matter in the creativity circuits of the mind is denser in highly creative people, a similarity shared by people with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. This is not to say that creative people suffer from psychopathology, rather that there are some similarities in the structure of the brain. Thicker white matter in some parts of the brain correlates to higher IQ whereas thinner white matter in other parts of the brain correlates to higher creativity (as defined by the researchers). Dense white matter carries information faster whereas thinner white matter slows down the transmission. This resonates with Irene because it seems to her that her thoughts travel in straight lines whereas Clyde’s mind sometimes takes loops and turns to go from one place to another.

Clyde is highly intelligent in addition to being very creative. So, this means that he has thick white matter in the IQ areas and thinner white matter in the creativity processing neurons. But there’s more to creativity than just the white matter. According to Jung, the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s planning and control center, takes a break when the mind is experiencing a creative moment. This clarifies how Clyde often forgets about practical matters when his mind switches to a creative mode. It also explains his ability to be playful without the pre-frontal cortex putting brakes on his uninhibited ability to have fun.

When Clyde walks through the door several hours later, he has a bagful of groceries in his hand and has remembered to bring everything on her list. Later, he pulls out a painting of a dozen yellow roses from his studio to surprise her.  His wife is happy that his thick white matter, thin white matter, and pre-frontal cortex are working as a team to create a pleasant day for both of them.

 


Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at FishRidingABike.com. Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at WhoseBrainIsIt.com.

Josh Buchanan, a UC Berkeley graduate, edits this column with an eye on grammar and scientific approach.

References:

  1. Jung, Rex., White Matter Integrity, Creativity, and Psychopathology:Disentangling Constructs with Diffusion Tensor Imaging, PLoS ONE | www.plosone.org, March 22, 2010
  2. Tippett,  Krista, host of Creativity and the Everyday Brain with Rex Young, On Being, May 2, 2013, http://www.onbeing.org/program/creativity-and-everyday-brain/1879

Whose Brain Is It?

 

 

 

 

Presented within the flow of the lives of real people and fictional characters, this is a monthly exploration of how parts of the brain work.

The BRAIN
by Leena Prasad

 

“Why a map, Mom?”

“Well, how do people normally use a map?”

“To get oriented to a place and to use that to find their way around.” Brian thinks for a minute. “So, it’s to understand where neurons are located inside the brain and how they are connected?” He pauses. “But don’t neuroscientists and neurosurgeons already know the locations and the connections?”

“They do but the brain has more than one billion neurons–” his mom says.

“–and several trillion neural connections or roads, you can say. Wait, are the neurotransmitters like roads or like cars? I guess they are like cars.”

His mom smiles. “That’s a close analogy. How do you think they will use the map?”

Brian scratches his chin.

“There are many diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinsons that we don’t fully understand,” his mom says. “ Obama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative will help them develop tools that can be used to not only map the brain but to understand how the neurons behave. So, it’s not just about creating a more detailed map but it’s also about getting a dynamic view of the stuff that happens in the brain.”

“But, how, how exactly? How will they capture the messages, the path traversed by the neurotransmitters, the messengers of the brain? I mean, that’s not a static thing…”

“Good point. The current studies use fMRI technologies to measure blood flow in specific parts of the brain. This helps them locate the place where neurotransmitters are active.”

“Yes, I know that!”

“Well, the idea of BRAIN is to provide funding to create more sophisticated tools than the fMRI, to see both high-level view of the neurons and their activities and to get a more close-up view—“

“—yeah, I get it.” He says impatiently. “But how is it different than the research already happening?”

“It’s not necessarily different. It’ll build on the existing work and provide additional resources.”

“Ah, so we can learn about the brain faster.”

“Yup.”

“Mom, maybe I can get involved with the BRAIN initiative.”

“Yes, it’s a new thing. So, there will be all types of opportunities if the funding continues. But, first if you have to get qualified by studying neuroscience.”

“Maybe I can become a brain surgeon!”

“Sure, but that means you will learn and use what is already known about the brain. You won’t be making new discoveries. So you won’t be part of BRAIN.”

“So, a neuroscientist then?”

“Yes, or both,” his mom says.

“I can be like Oliver Sacks and be a brain-surgeon and a neuroscientist and a neuroscience writer.”

“Yes, you can be. But first, start exercising your brain on the math homework that’s due tomorrow.”

“Yes  Mom.”

 


Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at http://FishRidingABike.com. Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at http://WhoseBrainIsIt.com.

Josh Buchanan, a UC Berkeley graduate, edits this column with an eye on grammar and scientific approach.

References:

  1. Flatow,  Ira, host of President Obama Calls for a BRAIN Initiative, NPR>Science>Research News, April 5, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/04/05/176339688/president-obama-calls-for-a-brain-initiative
  2. Neuroscientists Weigh In on Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, Scientific American, May 2, 2013, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=neuroscientists-weigh-in-obamas-brain-initiative

‘Whose Brain Is It?” a monthly neuroscience column by Leena Prasad

WhoseBrainIsIt.com

Presented within the flow of the lives of real people and fictional characters, this is a monthly exploration of how parts of the brain work.

 

You are feeling sleepy…
by Leena Prasad

 

The tall man on stage, dressed in a business suit, is clucking like a chicken. A pretty redhead, also on the stage, laughs whenever the hypnotist says the word ‘paper’. A young boy says the word ‘tomato’ whenever the hypnotist touches him on the head.

Henry watches with fascination and is glad that he did not volunteer to be one of the performers’ guinea pigs. He wonders what hypnosis does to the brain.

Dr. Amir Raz, research professor at McGill University in Canada, conducted a study in which participants were able to perform better at a color recognition game while hypnotized. Normally, if an English-speaking person is asked to quickly identify the colors blueredgreen, they become momentarily confused because of the dissonance between the words and the colors. Under hypnosis, there was less confusion and subjects were able to identify the colors quicker because they were able to ignore the meaning of the words and simply look at the color.

Other neuroscientists are studying hypnosis in different contexts. Dr. David Oakley and Dr. Peter Halligan of Cardiff University conducted a study in which they mapped neural response to pain. The MRI’s on the right show blood flow within the brain while the patient was exposed to various conditions. The top figure shows the blood flow when the subject experienced pain from a physical stimulus. While under hypnosis, subjects were told that pain will be inflicted but no pain stimulus was actually used. Regardless, the subjects experienced pain as demonstrated by the middle MRI. Although not exactly the same, the top and middle images are somewhat identical. The bottom image shows much less activity in the brain when the subjects were simply told to imagine pain.

If Henry had volunteered to be hypnotized, he could have been on stage laughing at the mere mention of the word paper. It is possible that he will respond in the same manner as the study subjects in terms of his ability to identify the colors and to feel ghost pain. Not everyone is hypnotizable, however, and the subject has to be a willing participant in order for hypnosis to work.

As in most areas of brain research, the study of hypnosis has potential. Neuroscientists are in the beginning stages of studying the power of this ancient practice and are finding brain activity correlation with hypnosis. If Henry conducts a web search, he will find documentation of studies that show how hypnosis plays out within the neural networks of the brain.

 


Leena Prasad has a journalism degree from Stanford and her writing portfolio can be found at FishRidingABike.com. Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at WhoseBrainIsIt.com.

Josh Buchanan, a UC Berkeley graduate, edits this column with an eye on grammar and scientific approach.

Dr. Nicola Wolfe is a neuroscience consultant for this column. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychopharmacology from Harvard University and has taught neuroscience courses for over 20 years at various universities.

References:

  1. Blakeslee, Sandra, This Is Your Brain Under Hypnosis, New York Times, Nov., 22, 2005
  2. Raz, Amir., PhD; Shapiro, T., MD; Fan, Jin, PhD; Posner Michael I., PhD, Hypnotic Suggestion and the Modulation, Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2002;59:1155-1161
  3. Oakley, David A., Halligan, Peter W., Hypnotic suggestion and cognitive neuroscience, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Vol.xxx No.x.