The Behavioral Health Center of Excellence at UC Davis Puts its Neuroscience Tools to Good Use

These days it seems that neuroscience and its fancy new tools are in the news — a lot. Coming off the heels of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative announcement in April 2013, this attention is entirely unsurprising and timely. From the extensively covered optogenetics, to the controversial and non-invasive method of transcranial direct stimulation (tDCS), to the science-fiction like promise of CLARITY (a 3D visualization technique of intact rodent brains), it seems that neuroscientists are unstoppable. With these technologies in hand, the relevant question has become: how do we most effectively implement these tools to answer the most pressing research questions of our society today? 

cam carter at ucd

Dr. Cameron Carter, Director of the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and UC Davis Imaging Research Center addressed some of these issues in a public lecture, this past Monday, at the UC Davis Health Center in Sacramento entitled Brain Research: New Discoveries and Breakthroughs at UC Davis. During the first half of the presentation, Dr. Carter reminded the audience that with 100 billion neurons and trillions of connections, constantly changing throughout a lifetime, what’s surprising isn’t that things can go wrong. What’s surprising is that the brain ever succeeds in coordinating as mundane a task as picking up a pencil in the first place. In fact, it’s at this intersection — of mental disease and mental health — that we, as researchers, are able to glean the most insight about the limits of our nervous system. This understanding is key to the development of novel, effective, deliverable therapies and early interventions. Furthermore, these therapies and evidence-based strategies can only have a real impact if they are appropriately disseminated to the community and mental health workers at the outset.

In October 2014, with the support of Former Senator Darrell Steinberg, author of Prop 63 (aka as the “California Mental Health Services Act), the partnership of UCLA, and the tangible support of Dean Frederick J. Meyers, The Behavioral Health Center of Excellence at UC Davis was launched:

In the past few months, the center put out a call for pilot research grant applications (awards were $200,000 each, totaling 4.3 million dollars). 65 applications were received and peer reviewed. 16 of them were funded. UCD Neuroscience Graduate students: you will recognize some of these names and faces. The awards funded questions and methods that spanned quite the range. The projects included: the use of sensitive calcium sensors (Drs. Karen Zito and Lin Tian), non-invasive tDCS (Dr. Charan Ranganath), electrical brain stimulation to enhance learning and memory (Dr. Evan Antzoulatos), the novel combination of ultrasound and fMRI (Dr. Katherine Ferrara), and the saavy use of smartphone apps to collect mental health data on patients (Dr. Tara Niendam).

In a sense, these funded projects are a confirmation that enthusiasm for the novel development and application of neuroscience tools exists today. Yet, this initiative sets itself apart in its practical application of basic science to the real mental health problems we face as a society today.

The atmosphere at yesterday’s lecture was primarily one of hope. This stands in contrast to the attitude in clinical brain research today, Dr. Carter explained to the audience. For the past few years, there has been a discrepancy between how much we’ve learned in neuroscience and how difficult it is to develop drug therapies despite this knowledge. So, what gives?

There’s still hope, Dr. Carter urges. The more we learn about how brain circuits function, he explains, the more well-poised we are to develop therapies for when those circuits malfunction. “Let’s use this knowledge to fix the broken circuits,” said Dr. Carter. In essence, this is the exhortation shared by the BRAIN Initiative, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

From this graduate student’s perspective, this can only be done effectively if policy makers, basic researchers and affected individuals in the community continue to communicate.

For those interested in participating more directly in this conversation and learning more about the center’s iniatives, mark your calendars for the “Early Psychosis Symposium” planned for September 17th, 2015 at the UC Davis Health System, Sacramento Education Building, 4610 X Street Lecture Hall 2222. A copy of the agenda can be found here.

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Can you plagiairize…yourself?

UPDATE: Jonah Lehrer has officially resigned from the New Yorker. Turns out that he has apologized for outright lying. Copies of his book “Imagine” are being recalled by the publisher as we speak (very expensive and arduous process). Perhaps a follow-up blog post is due to be written. In the meantime, here is a link to a NYTimes article which discusses the current updates on the situation.

His name is Jonah Lehrer. He is thirty years old – and he’s somewhat of a celebrity in the world of science writing. As former undergraduate researcher in Eric Kandel’s lab at Columbia University, he began first researching and reading – then writing about science. His blog The Frontal Cortex quickly gained popularity and it was only a matter of time before it grew to be a regular section at the popular science magazine Wired. You may have also heard him on the radio, as he is a regular contributor to the well-known science show: WNYC – RadioLab. In addition to blogging, he has three published books to his name (his most recent one entitled “Imagine: How Creativity Works”) and to top off his list of achievements, he was recently hired as a staff writer for The New Yorker (yes, THE New Yorker). At the rate he’s going, it seems there is nothing that can stand in the way of this young, ambitious science writer.

Unless, of course, the thing standing in his way happens to be himself. Just last month, Romensko published an entry on his site alerting everyone that Jonah’s pieces over at The New Yorker seemed to be reeking of self-plagiarism. Since that day, the Internet has been abuzz over the controversy, with several individuals citing numerous other instances of Jonah’s self-plagiarism. As academics, we are all too familiar with the term “plagiarism” – but what, you may be asking, is self-plagiarism? According to the website “Plagiarism Today” self-plagiarism is “when an author or other content creator uses portions of an earlier work in a new one without citing the original content.”

By that definition, the verdict for Jonah seems pretty unambiguous: guilty as charged. However, many (including myself) are not entirely convinced the story is quite so straightforward. For one thing: there’s something strange about the term “self-plagiarism”. It seems mildly…oxymoronic. If you write something – do you need to request permission from yourself in order to re-use, recycle, or “repurpose” the material? Is it just me…or does this sound like a bad joke? Jonah’s publisher points out that “he [Jonah Lehrer] owns the rights to the relevant articles, so no permission was needed. He will add language to the acknowledgments noting his prior work.” Indeed, even the post on Plagiarism Today bears the following admission: “To further complicate things, most of the definition of what is and is not self-plagiarism, as with regular plagiarism, depends heavily on the arena the accusation is being made in and the expectations that come with it.”

Well. To be fair, we can only assume that the expectation of his editor at The New Yorker was that he would be writing fresh material. Not to mention: what responsibility does he bear to his readers (especially his most loyal followers) to generate new material? Before moving from the Wired to The New Yorker, Jonah himself wrote directly to his readers, saying: I’ve got some news to share: I’ve decided to accept a staff writer position at the New Yorker. Needless to say, I’m very excited. […] This also means that my blog, Frontal Cortex, will be moving to the You can find all my new posts hereExcept, it turned out that his posts weren’t really all that new after all. There’s no doubt that there will be some measure of overlap in Jonah’s ideas and his writing – but what really is the point of writing literally the same thing over and over again? Did he really think no one would notice? In the words of Rohan Maitzen “Even if it’s not a strictly illegitimate practice, it’s not very impressive for a writer to be so repetitive.”

Curious as to what Jonah’s response has been to all of this, I scoured the Internet only to find this statement: “It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong.” Alright then, so is this really just a case of (self-proclaimed) laziness? In reading through all the criticisms of Jonah, one point that I did read in his favor was his willingness to accept and acknowledge when he’s made a mistake. His openness on this front will help any offended readers and fans, I’m sure, move past his infraction (at this point I am dropping the term self-plagiarism altogether). And his editor at The New Yorker, Nicholas Thompson, has decided to keep Jonah on staff (though all of Jonah’s pieces now appear with an Editor’s Note that acknowledges and regrets the duplication of material).

Still, some readers are scratching their heads wondering what all this fuss is about. In response to the most recent article posted on the NYTimes, one reader writes: Yeah, you should never borrow from yourself! Hard to be upset about this. I myself haven’t written an original word since my first New York Times comment in 2004! and reader,  Margaret, comments: I don’t see what the issue is. This seems like much ado about nothing (credit: Shakespeare).

Well, there is certainly nothing like a bit of humor to bring us back to the real issue at hand, to remind us when we may have taken things a bit too far – and there’s no doubt, the situation has gotten a bit out of hand. Yet, as I read through the various articles and posts about the Jonah Brouhaha (my shorthand for this controversy) – I realized it’s going to be awfully difficult for me to completely align myself with the: “what’s the big deal?” sentiment. It would be nice, as a fan of Jonah’s writing and as an ambitious writer myself, to throw my hands up and say: “Oh well – it’s not such a big deal. What’s all this fuss about?” I almost wish I could say it’s much ado about nothing. Is it really nothing though? I’m not entirely convinced.

Not only is it not entirely unimpressive to be so repetitive as a writer, but it also sends the wrong message to readers. At best, it comes across as disingenuous. At worst, it’s like trying to get credit (or in this case: money) for the same work twice. That latter point – the fact that Jonah is getting paid twice for essentially the same material is itself enough to make him culpable of something even if it doesn’t go by the ugly label of plagiarism. Indeed, many have suggested a different label. Erik Wemple over at The Washington Post “Lehrer took his own work and presented it as his own (fresh) work. That’s bad, but it’s not so bad that it should be described with any variant of the term ‘plagiarism.’ It becomes an interestingly hairy situation when you don’t even have a name to give to the crime. Which brings me to this point: perhaps this issue is bigger than Jonah himself. Perhaps this is about our inability to be clear in our language. Or in the words of Shawn O’Rouke over at Poptech: “While both sides of the Lehrer discussion and the larger issue of self-plagiarism make compelling arguments, perhaps the debate’s very existence is emblematic of the imprecise nature of the language being used.”

So, perhaps to answer the question of this post: Is it possible to plagiarize yourself? I say: yes and no. That’s the problem with this term – it is entirely dependent on expectations and on context. And with regards to the Jonah brouhaha, I argue that this term is entirely unhelpful. It seems that many have used this loaded term, in part, to criticize Jonah for other issues they have been secretly harboring against him (he cherry picks research results, he simplifies scientific findings, he has made scientific errors in his writing, he’s too young to be this successful, etc) and I think that this detracts from the conversation at hand. The point is that Jonah (someone who recently wrote an entire book about creativity) has cheated himself and his readers somewhat by repeating himself in his writing. I agree with Wemple on this one – that’s bad, but it’s not so bad as plagiarism.

In an interview with Colbert back in April (prior to this controversy) – you can witness a sad twist of irony and a bit of eerie foreshadowing: “You’re one of the contributing editors of Wired, you write for The New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal – you’re coming up with material all the time, so you’re one of the creative types, right?” To which Jonah replied, “well, I try.” Indeed he does – and he usually succeeds. So much so that he has become the target of a disproportionate amount of fury. Let it go, people. He’s a talented writer who makes neuroscience accessible and engaging for many. He made a mistake and he apologized. Let’s move on.

Colbert Interviews Jonah on his book “Imagine”

P.S. Thank you to our very own, Ling Wong, for the tip-off/idea to blog about this! I had great fun reading all sides and exploring a pretty complex issue! Would love to hear thoughts/feedback.


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The Wildness of Being Human

There were SO many interesting talks this morning…I’m pretty sure all of us are still “digesting” the concepts and implications of the ideas discussed. Keep your eye out for more posts. I’ll be more comprehensive later (took good notes!). Before took the break for lunch, we ended the first half of the conference in the best way possible: with poetry.

Jane Hirshfield walked up to the podium after a morning spent discussing: our multiplicities, our complexities, our illusions and delusions, our interconnectedness…all part and parcel of what it means to “be human”. One word we left out of the mix, she said – was wildness. We are endlessly interesting creatures after all – and even our seemingly rational behaviors are at times inherently irrational. We don’t always understand why we do what we do nor do we always have conscious access to our unconscious experiences. Yet, we are here. We live on. We muddle through this existence … and we do so strengthened by the bonds of love we share with one another.


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Kicking off the International Symposia for Contemplative Studies (ISCS)

The first-ever International Symposia of Contemplative Studies (ISCS) began in Denver, Colorado on a dark and stormy afternoon. No, really – it did. As Jon Kabat-Zinn rolled up his sleeves and sat down on a cushion to lead us into meditation prior to offering us his opening talk, the room filled with the sound of silence and rolling thunder. Considering that the room was full of individuals who had just flown in from all over the country (and abroad!) it was a great way to call for everyone’s presence and attention. Jon-Kabat Zinn is a name that likely conjures up a host of associations, especially for those in the contemplative research community. He is most well known as the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) – a complementary medicine program that includes body scans, breath-focused meditation and a wide range of other exercises aimed at increasing self-awareness and decreasing stress in daily life.

I, myself, attended a 12-week MBSR course held at the National Institute of Health (NIH) taught by Dr. Rezvan Ameli and Tom Goddard in 2009 and greatly benefited from the experience. I respect and appreciate Jon Kabat-Zinn and very much enjoyed his insightful comments at the 2012 “Being Human” conference. Yet I’m not here to write to you about MBSR. Nor am I here to write about how much I respect Kabbat-Zinn. I’m here to share with you all – especially those of you not present at this symposium – what it’s like to be here. Reporting to you from the front lines, if you will – and if I’m honest with my readers I will say that I was sorely disappointed by this first talk.

Let me explain. First, my expectations: since it was the kick-off lecture, I expected that the talk would speak to the vision behind this gathering, the impetus behind this weekend, the hope for what these next three to four days will offer us. I expected that the talk would provide us with a framework. Please note also that this is the first time ever that this conference is happening. So not only was it the opening talk, it was the opening talk to an inaugural event. To be fair, Kabat-Zinn did attempt to call for recognition of how unique this gathering is – but it quickly slipped into a bit of nostalgia and maybe (though obviously sincere and heartfelt) effusive reflections on how far he and his colleagues have come.

The rest of the talk simply felt disjointed. He spoke about Albert Einstein’s vision of expanding circles of compassion (love that quote, by the way), about taking care of the earth as a reflection on how we take care of ourselves, and even a digression on Michael Pollan and mindful eating. Each of these points was in and of itself a great platform to launch into a larger point about the importance of contemplative research. I was hoping he would make a point about the nature of this work and its importance for our lives as human beings.

One point he did manage to spend more time on was the importance of clarifying our use of the term “mindfulness”. This word, he said, was created as a sort of “umbrella term” for the Buddhist equivalent of “dharma” – roughly defined as the set of teachings that serve as the very ground for cultivating greater self-awareness. “My nightmare,” Kabat-Zinn shared with us, “is that people think this is a concept that I’ve created.” Yet he was insistent that we consider “using the term more”. I’m hoping that what motivated this statement was his recognition that we ought to better define what “mindfulness” means.

I should wrap this up by saying this much: in hindsight I am actually grateful that this was the first talk because it taught me something about myself. In monitoring my own personal reactivity to this talk, it’s clear to me how invested I am in advancing the quality of research that is done on such an important practice. At least I know even more deeply now – just how much I care and just how invested I am in this.

As I once wrote in an email to my own dear Bay Area “Sangha“: Essentially, I recognize that the curiosity that draws me to the meditation cushion and the curiosity that draws me to research are one and the same. I am committed to investigating this reality with an open heart and mind (both on and off the cushion!) As Pascal shared during our retreat – the beauty of the dharma is that it is essentially very investigative in nature. “Come and see for yourself”, the Buddha said. Ehipaśyika. That is what I am trying to do from every possible perspective!

May the journey continue.

P.S. Comments are always welcome! Especially by others who *are* here and had different perspectives. Just click the “thought bubble” at the top right hand corner of this post 

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Choose Your Delusion

Things are not always as they seem. We’ve all heard that cliche. Yet, as I always argue, hackneyed phrases develop by virtue of their repeated confirmation of a truth. Still…to what degree can such a claim be made? How far can this cliche really extend? Is it simply a fun expression to throw around in situations that teach us we don’t always see the “whole” story in the face of a given experience? Or does this phrase literally translate into our embodied and physical experience with the world around us? I think you can guess where I’m going with this…

What you see…may be an illusion.

At first blush, this may seem quite annoying. Does this mean that your brain is an unreliable reporter of “objective” reality? Well, yes – but perhaps this is not entirely bad news. Besides the fact that it gives you some neat party tricks to share with your friends, the brain’s inherent biases and filters…may actually be viewed a useful thing. This perspective (pun initially unintended!) recognizes that the more interesting question is: “How are these filters useful?” Indeed why would the brain function to enhance contrasts, to prime and bias our lexical systems, to be so malleable in the face of competing modes of information (for example: incongruent visual versus auditory stimuli)? Indeed, if we do have such built-in biases, what does this mean for us as humans? What does it mean in terms of how we subsequently choose to interact with the world around us?

The “Perceptions & Sensations” portion of the Being Human 2012 conference explored some of these very questions.  Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist who studies perception at the University College-London (UCL), began exploring the can-of-worms topic “perception” by starting with: how we see light. “Even jelly fish see light and they don’t even have a brain… it doesn’t get much simpler than that,” Beau shared. And so we began.

We began with a series of optical illusions. These always make for convincing demonstrations since we, as humans, tend to trust our sense of sight (even when we “know better”), almost preferentially above other senses. Some of the most striking examples were of shapes that were the same shade of gray but when placed in an environment surrounded by black or white, suddenly appeared either lighter or darker, respectively. In neuro-jargon, this effect is termed “contrast enhancement” See below for yourself!

Btw, just for kicks, click here for some other fun optical illusions to play around with.

Next, Beau went on to explain that the brain is – on a large scale – working hard to make sense of its experience. In order to do this, the brain must necessarily be characterized by the appropriate degree of flexibility. After all, we are not presented with the same set of environments all the time – and one of the great hallmarks of “being human” is our capacity to learn in a variety of contexts. To demonstrate this point, Beau dragged the unsuspecting Peter Baumann (the man whose foundation generously funded and organized the conference) onto the stage to be a volunteer. “It’s not very invasive,” Beau jokingly reassured Peter. Indeed. The task? Throw a green ball at a giant dot on the screen in front of him. Easy enough, right?

Well, it took Peter a few tries to get a couple of reliable close-to-target shots. Great. Short training period: done. Next? Well, my UC Davis Neurofolk will recognize what we refer to as Will DeBello’s “Prism Goggles”. Yes. Beau handed Peter a pair of prism goggles. Now for those of you unfamiliar with what these do: they essentially shift your visual world a full twenty degrees to the right. Eek! In other words: Peter was now seeing the black dot twenty degrees shifted over from its actual location – which meant, in order for him to continue hitting the dot on target, he needed to modify his behavior. He had to learn to adjust his throw twenty degrees back to the left in order to compensate.

This is, in principle, similar to Will DeBello’s experiments with Barn Owls. Except instead of a dot, imagine a mouse. Instead of Beau instructing Peter, imagine the owls are receiving auditory feedback from the mouse vocalizations (i.e where the owls hear the squeak versus where the mice are actually located are at odds). In both scenarios, the organism needs to learn to adapt and modify its behavior in order to achieve his goal (hit the dot / get the mouse!) Just like the owls – Peter did, over time, learn to adapt appropriately. And just like the owls, it took him sometime to “unlearn” this behavior once the goggles came off. “Why?” Beau Lotto asks the audience, “because the brain has come to learn to see the world in a new way. It doesn’t know the glasses are off.” Yet. But eventually, Peter’s brain does learn to readjust. Okay, so the brain’s flexibility is an important reason it is capable of learning. Isn’t this old news?

Yet, it’s not just about learning – nor is it simply about making associations or detecting patterns (though, admittedly, this by itself would be pretty neat!). No, Beau went on to argue, it’s about something else: creating meaning. To demonstrate this point, he presented us with a series of implicit word completion tasks:

C n  y u  rea  t is?

You   a e not r adi g th s.

…and so on. A 1000+ people in the audience correctly guessed: “Can your read this?” then “You are not reading this.” I trust this was an easy task for you, as well. Now try:

W at  ar  ou  rea  in?

If you were like the rest of us, you guessed: “What are you reading?” … priming. It makes sense to guess such a completion especially following the other two meanings we extracted from the previous completion tasks. But it could have just as easily been: “What are you dreaming?” …but we are, of course, “colored” by our past experiences. When we receive a stimulus, we respond based on what our past experiences tell us that stimulus must mean. Not unlike this frog interacting with the “ant crusher” iphone game.

Okay, so…the brain not only learns but it does so  largely based on its repertoire of past experiences. Why is this useful? Why is learning in the long-term as important as learning in the short-term? Well, imagine if that frog had to learn every single time to stick out its tongue to grab its lunch. Imagine if we were incapable of generalizing lessons we extracted from a particular situation across other similar situations. Our biases are indeed useful adaptations. They only become a problem when we completely forget they are there altogether. They become a problem when we confuse our biases with the truth itself.

What makes us uniquely human, amongst other things, is our ability to “see ourselves see”. We are aware of the fact that we entertain two simultaneously existing realities: that which we see and that which we know. It’s what makes optical illusions so fun! Our eyes see one thing and another part of us is aware of a contradicting truth. We get to entertain two possibilities…at the same time.

So what does it mean for us as humans? Well, honestly – not much if we ignore it. If we ignore the fact that our filters exist or we “pretend away” our biases…then we are essentially cutting ourselves off from choice. Indeed, “seeing ourselves see” is another way of describing the process of awareness itself and it is only by being aware of our own biases and filters – across various domains of life – that we may be better poised to engage with our world from a wiser and more mature perspective. Or in the words of Beau Lotto:  “We have two options: either nothing is an illusion or everything is an illusion. Given this realization, we’re all pretty delusional. So…you might as well choose your delusion.”  


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Being Human 2012

I’m really looking forward to tomorrow! I will be attending an event that seems almost tailor-made for a neurogeek and explorer such as myself: Being Human Conference 2012. The lineup of speakers looks amazing. It should be interesting gathering all these ground breaking thinkers in one room! I can’t wait to hear what they have to say and I can’t wait to see what questions the audience will throw their way. You can check out a live feed of the sold-out event here on ForaTV. I will, of course, be blogging and tweeting from the trenches tomorrow! So, stay tuned!


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Dear Friends, I am moving!

AUGUST 2015, UPDATE: I’M BACK! Old posts have been migrated back over.

Posting will resume this year, so please stay tuned!

Follow me….here

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Rationalism: The (un)faithful servant?

“The Intuitive Mind is a sacred gift, the Rational Mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” ~Albert Einstein

I’m sensing a conflict. While the conflict is in part an inner-struggle, I believe that it’s also ongoing in Western science & society (though it’s not always acknowledged to be as such). What on earth am I talking about? I’m talking about the relationship between the rational and the intuitive intelligences. I am intentionally referring to the intuitive as a type of “intelligence” along with the rational.

To some this seems an obvious thing to do, but to others – the two words are themselves at odds. In fact, the belief of the latter group – that intuition is devoid of intelligence (and by extension legitimacy) – is at the root of the inner / personal struggle.

After all, I’m a scientist. In order to be legitimate, I can’t be hokey-pokey (and isn’t that what intuition is?). Skepticism is an important part of my investigative toolkit – and while I’m okay with hypothesizing, and exploring alternative possibilities, all the imaginative and intuitive theories of the world are, in the end, nothing more than theory if they are unsupported by data. Show me your evidence! Or in the words of physicist Richard Feynman:

“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

Period. I defend and believe in this sentiment with every fiber of my being. I also believe that there is absolutely no good reason to disparage the role of intuition and creativity in the sciences. In fact, I believe that the spirit of scientific investigation itself is fueled by such things as: excitement (for the question), love (of discovery), joy and pleasure (of finding things out), fun (of exploring the unknown). Notice a common thread? They are all emotions! And emotions are, by definition, excluded from the realm of the “rational”

“Observation provides the empirical data used to form our conclusions, and also arouses certain emotions for which there are no substitutes – enthusiasm, surprise, and pleasure, which are compelling forces behind constructive imagination. Emotion kindles the spark that ignites cerebral machinery, whose glow is required for the shaping of intuition and reasonable hypotheses” ~Santiago Ramon y Cajal

So it is clear that one cannot really ignore that emotions, intuition, and the subjectivity of our beings, play in this game of discovery we call science. Did I just place subjectivity and science in the same sentence? Aaaaaah! I think I just cringed while typing it. Even if we acknowledge that we are inevitably biased as individuals, don’t we believe in an ultimate objective, testable truth out there? And don’t we believe in the power of the scientific method? of peer-review? Yes (mostly), yes…and yes (also most of the time for that last one but that’s another post for another day).

I’d like to draw your attention to an interview, aired recently by one of my all-time favorite science correspondents, Natasha Mitchell, over at All in the Mind. The interview this week was with Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and author of the book “The Master and its Emissary” Interestingly, the subtitle of the book is: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. In it, he discusses how (at least in Western society) we are growing more and more heavily dependent on a rationalized, de-contextualized, and consequently de-humanized point of view.

The main title of the book, “The Master and his Emissary” is intended as a metaphor (inspired by a Nietzsche story). The “Master” is used to represent the right-brained, contextualized, intuitive, big-picture and experiential point of view while the “Emissary” is representative of the left-brained, rational and logical point of view. Of course, McGilchrist himself is quick to point out that both sides of the brain perform varied and important functions and that these are simplifications of their roles. The point, however, is even larger than our society’s potentially increasing brain lateralization. In his own words:

“But I think because it [left-brain/rationalism] is so eloquent on its own behalf, it’s neglected to allow us to perceive that there are other very important things that need to be combined with it and that’s really the message.”

What a shame! Yet, I think it’s true. There are several examples around us both within science itself, and in mainstream society where we see a higher value and respect placed on “logical and rational” and a belittling of the “intuitive” – often writing it off as “new-agey”. Of course we need to be critical of claims, of course logic needs to be applied – but as McGilchrist stated in his interview… there is little to no danger that (at least as scientists) we will give up on rationalism. Perhaps our concern then, to redress the balance, ought to be that we have lost sight of the other type of intelligence.

Thoughts? Feelings? Do share!

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Environmental Enrichment, Stress and the Infralimbic Cortex

We all know this from personal experience: some people are good at handling stress and others…well, they’re simply not. Present any two individuals with the same stressful situation and chances are they will respond differently. Of course no one is immune to the adverse effects of stress, but it’s true that some individuals are, on the whole, particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of stress, while others are, on the whole, resilient. It’s no wonder then, that neuroscientists are asking: What molecular changes in the brain play a role in mediating stress susceptibility or resiliency?

During the last couple of days at SfN, I had the opportunity to speak with Michael Lehmann [Poster RR13], a postdoc in the at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), who asked that very question. In particular, Michael wanted to know whether environmental enrichment could buffer the adverse effects of stress (thereby mediating stress resiliency)  and if so, he wanted to know what brain regions were involved.

The Setup

His studies were done in c57bl/6 mice and the environmental enrichment (EE) setup included: hoops and running wheels of multiple colors and textures as well as various types of nesting material. Animals in the control group were provided with standard bedding and nestlet material. Both groups had continual and unlimited access food and water. After 4-6 weeks in their respective homecages (EE & regular), half of the mice from either group were subjected to social defeat stress over a period of two weeks, while the other half were simply left alone for two weeks. In total, then, there were four groups:

(1) Environmentally Enriched (EE) (2) Control (C)
(1a) Social Defeat (SD) Stress (2a) Social Defeat (SD) Stress
(1b) No Stress (2b) No Stress

Following the two weeks of stress exposure, animals were put through a behavioral battery of tests to measure anxiety levels, risk-taking behavior, social interaction and depressive- like behaviors. The results?

Environmental enrichment (EE) mediates stress resiliency

There were no behavioral differences in any of these tests between the non-stressed animals (Groups 1b and 2b). In other words, the environmental enrichment alone was not sufficient to reveal any differences between the animals. Differences were apparent, however, between the groups who were subjected to stress (Groups 1a and 2a). The animals who were in the non-enriched environments displayed higher levels of anxiety and depressive-like behaviors in tests than did the environmentally-enriched (EE) group. In a series of follow-up experiments, Michael then looked at what brain regions differed in activation between these two groups (using the functional neuroanatomical marker  Delta FosB) and found that EE mice (resilient to the effects of stress) mediated their responses via brain regions known to be associated with emotion and fear regulation.

Infralimbic Cortex (IC) is necessary for EE mediated stress resiliency

To further investigate the role of the infralimbic cortex (IC) in particular, Michael ran one last series of experiments. He lesioned the IC using idotenic acid (a substance with selectively destroys neurons) both before and after EE to determine whether or not the IC was necessary for the EE-mediated stress resiliency.

(1) Lesion –> Environmental Enrichment (EE) –> Social Defeat (SD) –> Behavior Tests (2) Environmental Enrichment (EE) –> Lesion –> Social Defeat (SD) –> Behavior Tests

Animals who received the lesion prior to EE, demonstrated changes in behavioral tests. They showed decreased levels of Delta FosB expression in the nucleus accumbens (NA) and the . That is to say, when the IC was lesion prior to EE-induction, the beneficial effects of EE-mediated stress resiliency virtually disappeared. On the other hand, animals who received the lesion after EE-induction, demonstrated no changes in behavior and no decreases in delta FosB expression.

What does it all mean?

Well, for one thing it certainly reinforces the idea that environmental enrichment has positive outcomes for the brain. Furthermore, the last two portions of Michael’s experiments demonstrate something entirely novel: the acquisition of stress resiliency and the expression of stress resiliency operate via two different pathways. In Michael’s own words: “After environmental enrichment if you lesion [the IC] it’s okay, because the expression of the resiliency is now residing in other brain regions – possibly in the accumbens, possibly in the intercalate cell islands of the amygdala…”

So, the “where” is to be determined. I’m sure there will be follow-up experiments, and when there are – I’ll be sure to update. Anyways, this officially concludes my official “SfN reporting”. This blog, though, isn’t going anywhere – so please do keep the feedback (the good and the bad) coming!

P.S. Photo Credit in “The Setup” section comes from this paper.

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Dining in San Diego: The Hash House a go go…

One last break from our regularly scheduled science coverage to report on a unique dining experience in San Diego. Tomorrow I will be resuming my science coverage! Look out for an interview with Michael Lehman for his recent work on environmental enrichment and how it plays a role in mediating stress resiliency through the infralimbic cortex. Read his abstract here.

As we didn’t get back to the hotel until 3 am Monday evening, the girls and I decided we needed to sleep in Tuesday morning. So, sleep in we did. Late Tuesday morning, we decided that before meeting up with our friends, we would stop somewhere closeby for some food. We found a place close to the zoo that had pretty decent ratings: Hash House a go go. The menu promised a good variety of brunch options, so…off we went!

Luckily, there wasn’t much of a wait at the restaurant (we were told this was unusual for this hotspot, but likely due to the fact that we were dining off-peak times). We decided to order our own main egg dishes with an extra side of pancakes to share. When Kira asked our waiter how many pancakes come in a stack, he simply replied: “It’s actually a single pancake, but it’s big enough to share.”

Ladies and gentlemen: I present the Understatement of the Year Award to Hash House –

I just have one question: At what point does a pancake cease to be a pancake and at what point can you classify it…as an actual cake? Aren’t there diameter restrictions? Depth restrictions? These pictures don’t even capture the gargantuan nature of these portions. That pancake was at least an inch thick.

Don’t get me wrong. The food was delicious – but this pancake was sufficient to feed a family of four! Staci’s meal had an entire rosemary tree planted on top of a hill:

We were so stunned…all we could do was laugh. I think Kira almost wet her pants.

Needless to say, we couldn’t finish it all. We had to request 3 to-go boxes and when that wasn’t sufficient, we asked for another two. We spent the rest of the afternoon carrying eight pounds worth of food around Balboa Park – and yes, we did take turns.

The best part about the entire experience was that even though we were clearly freaking out, our waiter was clearly unphased. I’m guessing they get the reaction all the time – still, I was surprised he didn’t give us more of a warning! At least we had some good laughs. Thanks Hash House! Next time we’re in San Diego, I’ll bring along three friends and we’ll order: one pancake.

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