• Tweet Year in Review

    Each year I review 12 months-worth of articles I’ve tweeted about to get a handle on what’s been hot and what’s not in the world of brain science. My daily scouring of the latest brain news usually results in around 10 to 20 articles per week that I feel merit making a link and posting it on Twitter (@drjacklewis). For an article to be deemed tweet-worthy it has to be real science, usually brain-related and written in an accessible, compelling way so that anyone can get something out of it.

    This year the top three categories of brain-related articles I’ve been tweeting about were on the topics of strategies for improving brain health, brain scanning studies and experiments relevant to understanding how young brains differ from adult brains.

    I’ve pulled out 15 of my favourites from 2017 and beneath these you’ll find the whole year’s worth:

    1. The mere presence of your smartphone reduces brain power, study shows bit.ly/2u8Vxym
    2. Brain training to help people avoid the need for reading glasses in middle age nyti.ms/2nstfhN
    3. To help comprehend just how much complexity is contained within a single cubic millimetre of brain tissue bit.ly/DrJ1CubBrMm
    4. The pen is mightier than the keyboard bit.ly/DrJMightyPen
    5. Influential tech investor slams Silicon Valley for adopting techniques that encourage compulsive media consumption bit.ly/DrJscncmplsv
    6. Neuroscientist Molly Crockett explains Brexit debacle in terms of our aversion to disadvantageous inequality bit.ly/DrJCrockBrex
    7. Fantastic article by Tali Sharot explaining why brains continue to believe info even after it’s revealed to be false bit.ly/DrJFakeNews
    8. Read for 30mins every single day and you’ll (probably) live for two years longer than if you don’t bit.ly/drJReadDaily
    9. Firm body, firm brain: magnetic resonance elastography shows positive correlation between memory & hippocampal firmness! bit.ly/DrJFitBdFitBrn
    10. Two large studies find that heavy coffee consumption predicts reduced mortality ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28693038 & ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28693036
    11. Vagus nerve stimulation implant zaps man back into consciousness after 15 years in post-car crash vegetative state bit.ly/2wPJax6
    12. Using high frequency magnetic stimulation to zap the voices generated by schizophrenic brains: bit.ly/DrJzapthevoices
    13. Fresh human brain, anyone? [don’t watch this if you’re eating, if not -behold the wonderous mass betwixt thine ears] bit.ly/2giJZaL
    14. AI based on organisation of visual brain thwarts CAPCHA “Are you a robot?” security measures bit.ly/DrJCAPCHAbash
    15. An essay on a neuroscience-informed approach to improving the prison service bit.ly/DrJNformedPrisn

    Below is every brain-related article I posted between 1st Dec 2016 and 30th Nov 2017 with clickable links so you can navigate straight to anything you find interesting:

    November 2017

    Opt in or out of old-aged infirmity – the choice is yours bit.ly/DrJ70new50

    Dog ownership makes middle aged people less likely to die or suffer cardiovascular problems according to study of over 3 million swedes bit.ly/DrJDogLifeExt

    Dolphin and killer whale brains reflect their intensely social nature bit.ly/DrJSocialCet

    The man behind Kernel’s efforts to crack the Brain Computer Interface challenge bit.ly/2z7rqhQ

    Monkey amputees trained to use a robotic arm via electrodes implanted into their brains give new insight into the mechanisms of neuroplasticity bit.ly/DrJMnkRobArm

    From American football to football football – study sets out to discover whether all those headers cause long term brain trouble bit.ly/DrJFootyBran

    If you never got around to reading about how avatar therapy can reduce schizophrenic hallucinations bit.ly/DrJSchAvTher you’ll be happy to hear we cover it in the latest episode of our @GCweirdscience podcast! bit.ly/DrJGeekChicPod

    I cannot wait until the longitudinal data on the impacts of allowing technology to constantly interrupt whatever we’re doing is finally published. In the meantime we have articles like this (which at least make people stop and think) bit.ly/DrJCyberSlack

    The record company exec’s dream come true: how much people like a song can be influenced by applying magnetic fields to a listener’s brain (Zatorre lab) bit.ly/DrJMagMusLik

    Do your brain training at the gym, the benefits may well be multiplicative bit.ly/DrJBrTrGym

    Actually, New Scientist covers the story much better… bit.ly/DrJAdHiStakes Brain imaging study highlights difficulties younger adolescents have compared to older adolescents when making (relatively) high stakes decisions

    Neuroscience study compares impact of after-school music lessons versus sports on brain structure and cognitive flexibility in kids from disadvantaged communities bit.ly/DrJMusicBrain

    Brain imaging study highlights difficulties younger adolescents have compared to older adolescents when making (relatively) high stakes decisions bit.ly/DrJAdolStakes

    Being a loner not always associated with bad outcomes. When freely chosen rather than compelled by socially-induced anxiety it predicts superior creativity bit.ly/DrJIsolCreat

    Cognitive training improves innovative thinking, along with corresponding positive brain changes, in healthy adults over the age of 55 bit.ly/DrJCogTrn55pl

    Couples may..have more opportunities for social engagement than single people-a factor that has been linked to better health and lower dementia risk bit.ly/DrJMarryDem

    The Society for Neuroscience conference is always full of surprises – love the study where they taught rhesus monkeys to play chicken and cooperate to maximise their earnings bit.ly/DrJRhesChickn

    Head and/or face pain tends to induce more emotional suffering, new study suggests it’s because neurons from these body parts plug directly into the parabrachial nucleus – others are indirectly connected bit.ly/DrJHdFcPn

    60% of people are pro-socials, meaning they prefer resources to be distributed equally among everyone, but these pro-socials – according to a new study – are more prone to depression bit.ly/DrJProsocDep

    Stress experienced by fathers may alter gene expression in their sperm, potentially leading to less resilient offspring bit.ly/DrJStressSperm

    Where neuroscience meets Virtual Reality, beautiful things can happen bit.ly/DrJNeuroXvr

    Interested in building games in virtual reality? Here’s a great lesson in what NOT to do if you want to create a sense of satisfaction when the player finally cracks the puzzle bit.ly/DrJVRescFAIL [if you don’t like swearing, DO NOT click the link]

    Turns out that smartphone addiction might be a thing after all – Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy study suggests it leads to neurotransmitter imbalance (GABA/glutamate) bit.ly/DrJPhoneAdict

    Head and/or face pain tends to induce more emotional suffering, new study suggests it’s because neurons from these body parts plug directly into the parabrachial nucleus – others are indirectly connected bit.ly/DrJHdFcPn

    “Stress experienced by fathers may alter gene expression in their sperm, potentially leading to less resilient offspring” bit.ly/DrJStressSperm

    Neuroscience study compares impact of after-school music lessons versus sports on brain structure and cognitive flexibility in kids from disadvantaged communities bit.ly/DrJMusicBrain

    Taste of what’s being talked about at the Society for Neuroscience conference today bit.ly/DrJTasteSfN17

    Study tests whether people recall images they were briefly shown (but not asked to memorise) 10 years previously bit.ly/DrJ10yrsLater

    Going beyond opioids in pain management to avoid the potential for addiction brings us to… snail venom bit.ly/DrJByndOpio

    The more you exercise the less your telomeres shorten, helping you to stay (biologically) young: bit.ly/DrJ70new50

    New brain probe has 1,000 recording sites per millimetre and is likely to be a “game-changer” for neuroscience research bit.ly/DrJBrainProbe

    Tales of a brain detective nyti.ms/2zqhDTj

    Mind-typing is on the horizon bit.ly/DrJMindType

    How the presence of irrelevant alternatives on a menu affect decision-making Decoy effect examined in fMRI-TMS study bit.ly/DrJMktgTrx

    Sleep deprivation makes your brain cells sluggish – literally – according to measurements from human neurons bit.ly/DrJSlpDepSlug

    Don’t spank your kids. What did and didn’t happen in your own childhood is irrelevant, we know better now… bit.ly/DrJDontSpank

    Brains severely damaged by heart attack more likely to recover if brain scans show that core connectivity is intact bit.ly/DrJPostHAbrnscn

    If GABA (in hippo) can reduce neg thoughts & high fat diet reduces GABA,then do high fat diets promote neg thoughts? bit.ly/DrJHiFatHiAnx

    An essay on a neuroscience-informed approach to improving the prison service bit.ly/DrJNformedPrisn

    Re-defining the phrase “Spaced Out” – what happens to an astronaut’s brain over the course of a long trip bit.ly/DrJSpacedOut

    The trouble with clinical trials involving brain implants… bit.ly/2zoOrg7

    Sweet dreams… make those zzzzz’s count bbc.in/2lCppnF

    OCT 2017

    If you’ve heard people moaning about the clocks going back, you may wish to take them out with this bit.ly/DrJBrBenClkBk

    New study demonstrates 40% faster learning with tDCS in non-human primates bit.ly/DrJfstrlrng

    Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) therapy for depression and OCD may trigger transient episodes of rage bit.ly/DrJtDCSrage

    AI based on organisation of visual brain thwarts CAPCHA “Are you a robot?” security measures bit.ly/DrJCAPCHAbash

    All hail the king of brain training, Dual n-back, freely available from brainworkshop.sourceforge.net for almost a decade! bit.ly/DrJDualNking

    I love that dolphins gossip about each other when the subject of the gossip isn’t around bit.ly/2yOjvFA

    Science of the female orgasm revisited bit.ly/DrJFemOrgasm

    Resetting the Circadian Clock Might Boost Metabolic Health ja.ma/2xGe4Z6

    Psilocybin therapy described as feeling like reset button had been pressed for many depressed people in neuro study bbc.in/2ymbV24

    Fresh human brain, anyone? [don’t watch this if you’re eating, if not -behold the wonderous mass betwixt thine ears] bit.ly/2giJZaL

    Activity-dependent plasticity can re-establish voluntary control of movement..after complete paralysis in humans bit.ly/DrJRecovParal

    Plans are afoot to grow a little-known cannabinoid (cannabidivarin) in GM yeast as a therapy to treat epilepsy bit.ly/DrJCBDV

    Cybernetics in action: a robot that can swim… & fly bit.ly/DrJCybernetics

    Feeling connected to others is vital for health so audio brain training for hard-of-hearing could be a real boon bit.ly/DrJAudioTrng

    If the body has to choose between fuelling the brain or the skeletal muscles, brains win every time bit.ly/2yvZjIe

    Waste not want not – how offcuts from human surgery are helping to unravel the #SecretsOfTheBrain bit.ly/DrJHmnBrnRes

    More hope means less anxiety bit.ly/DrJHopeProtects

    A window into the brain’s autopilot mode bit.ly/DrJBrAutoplt

    How to do lucid dreaming more effectively bit.ly/DrJLucidDrms

    Feeling connected to others is vital for health so audio brain training for hard-of-hearing could be a real boon bit.ly/DrJAudioTrng

    If the body has to choose between fueling the brain or the skeletal muscles, brains win every time bit.ly/2yvZjIe

    New GDF15 drugs progressing through pre-clinical testing show good prospects in fight against the obesity pandemic bit.ly/DrJGDF15wtls

    New theory suggests migraines occur when brains sensitive to oxidative stress take steps to protect against damage bit.ly/DrJMigrProt

    Power of touch in soothing social pain bit.ly/DrJTouchSocPn

    Re: artificial retinas…it may actually take less work to enhance human vision than to restore normal vision: bit.ly/DrJEasya2Enh

    non-REM sleep is especially important in clearing plaques involved in Alzheimer’s disease from the brainî bit.ly/DrJNonREMdplq

    Great article to start trying to comprehend how much complexity is contained within1cubic millimetre of brain tissue bit.ly/DrJ1CubBrMm

    If you want to know how people are really feeling, close your eyes bit.ly/DrJHearEmot

    Neuroscientist Molly Crockett explains Brexit debacle in terms of our aversion to disadvantageous inequality bit.ly/DrJCrockBrex

    Phase II clinical trial of FDA-approved antihistamine restores function in patients with chronic multiple sclerosis bit.ly/DrJAntihstMS

    While perception tends to extract simple components and build up to complex features, recall appears to flip this bit.ly/DrJRecallBtoF

    Female brain’s attach more value to prosocial choices than men, whether due to nature or nurture uncertain bit.ly/DrJGendProS

    Who’d have thought there’s a genetic component to propensity to get divorced?!! bit.ly/DrJDivGenes

    Bad news for my high school which has a major A-road running between the 2playgrounds. Pollution & brain development bit.ly/DrJYngBrnPln

    Here’s a cracking (hyperbole-free) article describing where we’ve got to in the epic journey of merging mind&machine bit.ly/DrJBrnCmpInt

    Why do smart people do foolish things? Intelligence is not the same as critical thinking and the difference matters bit.ly/2y6vAUZ

    34,000 Norwegians followed over 11 years suggest exercise reduces incidence of depression -what are you waiting for? bit.ly/DrJExerBrain

    Experiencing traumatic brain injury – from the perspective of a science journalist knocked off her bike by a car bit.ly/DrJTrmBrnInj

    Mindfulness meditation influences different brain areas to compassion-based meditation bit.ly/DrJMedtnBrn

    Google’s DeepMind postulates that hippocampus doesn’t just contain memories of the past, but also visions of future bit.ly/DrJHipoFutr

    Geek Chic Weird Science podcast Ep81 is out now: this week we discuss living in lava tubes, the IgNobels & more… bit.ly/DrJGCWeirdSci

    Experimental transcranial Direct Current Stimulation significantly reduced fatigue in people with multiple sclerosis bit.ly/DrJtcDCS4MS

    Nobel prize for three researchers who unpicked the brain mechanisms of circadian rhythm bit.ly/DrJNobl17Circ

    Pregnancy fundamentally alters female brains, find a summary of the findings of this groundbreaking research here bit.ly/DrJPregBrain

    2,500 pickled human brains harvested from psychiatric patients in Essex now being studied in Belgium bit.ly/DrJBoxedBrains

     

    SEP 2017

    Being busy ruins creativity http://bigthink.com/21st-century-spirituality/creativity-and-distraction

    MRI study indicates that gamers deal better with uncertainty than those who don’t regularly play action video games bit.ly/DrJGmrsUncrt

    Vagus nerve stimulation implant zaps man back into consciousness after 15 years in post-car crash vegetative state bit.ly/2wPJax6

    A Beginner’s Guide to Machine Learning for Humans chw.ag/2fhexZW

    Fantastic article by Tali Sharot explaining why brains continue to believe info even after it’s revealed to be false bit.ly/DrJFakeNews

    Introducing… The International Brain Laboratory bit.ly/2xcEVZl

    Worrying takes up cognitive resources..get these worries out of your head through expressive writing..become more efficient bit.ly/2wu3BKP

    Researchers uncover mechanism behind calorie restriction and lengthened lifespan bit.ly/2jsCRJr

    Wow – the symptoms of anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis sound out of this world – imagine thinking you’re a T-Rex?! bit.ly/2h1rg3m

    I wrote a blog about the potential for deep brain stimulation without needing to put electrodes inside the brain… bit.ly/DrJFutureDBS

    Using high frequency magnetic stimulation to zap the voices generated by schizophrenic brains: bit.ly/DrJzapthevoices

    Move over stem cells, we can make motoneurons from people’s skin now… bit.ly/DrJmotoNfrmSKN

    MRI study reveals the vast majority of dogs love us “at least as much as food” nyti.ms/2gSbS9h

    Brains using photons for communication using neurons like optical fibres? Now i’ve heard it all… bit.ly/2wJ41ii

    Understand your child’s changing brain as the years go by ind.pn/2iW8pXQ

    All aboard who’s going aboard – wondering whether or not to get on the Brain Train? bit.ly/2x2kRf1

    Healthy glucose levels the key to a healthy ageing brain bit.ly/2x9vYCb

     

    AUG 2017

    Most of us alive today carry at least some DNA from a species that last lived tens of thousands of years ago bit.ly/2gc5Yzr

    Natural High? Finnish PET scanning study suggests High Intensity Interval Training boosts brain endorphins bit.ly/2ivpVlC

    Artificial Intelligence algorithm can predict dementia two years before onset on basis of single amyloid PET scan: bit.ly/2g5YWfC

    Here we go again: Aussie firm plans to target eSports gamers with their electrical brain stimulation headsets ab.co/2vWpDYk

    Scientists: There IS something you can do to save the world trib.al/n7zvDcl

    Struggle with insomnia? Try the Body Scan meditation shortly before bedtime bit.ly/2uIQ0i1

    In a nutshell: Walnuts activate brain region involved in appetite control bit.ly/2w61nVU

    Apparently cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help procrastinators, personally i’d never get round to it.. bit.ly/2vP2pmO

    Eating walnuts makes brain area activated by unpleasant feelings(eg disgust) light up when people see junk food pics bit.ly/2wTMkfC

    Read for 30 mins every single day and you’ll (probably) live for two years longer than if you don’t bit.ly/drJReadDaily

    Firm body, firm brain: magnetic resonance elastography shows +’ve correlation between memory & hippocampal firmness! bit.ly/DrJFitBdFitBrn

    Thinking of a career change? Why not figure out how to accommodate extra 70k elderly who’ll need care by 2025 bit.ly/drJCare4Eld

    The robots are coming (and this are the places where you’ll see them first) bit.ly/2vwf53g

    Going on holiday soon? Lucky you. Please read this and then as soon as you get to your destination UNPLUG bit.ly/DrJUnplug

    Will the future involve supercomputers made out of networked “brain balls” in vast underground server rooms? bit.ly/DrJBrainBlls

    A brief glimpse into the future of the neurotechnology industry bit.ly/DrJNuroTech

    Memory like a sieve? Imagining the irritating consequences of an action sequence makes memories stickier bit.ly/DrJMemTrix1

    Just when you think you’re getting your head around how complicated brains are..turns out they’re more complex still bit.ly/DrJEvnMreCplx

    Calm down dear the mighty @Neuro_Skeptic provides much needed perspective on male/female brain difference headlines bit.ly/DrJGndBrnSPCT

    Learning in your sleep, very specific phases of sleep, mind bit.ly/DrJSlpLrn

    Are energy drinks the new gateway drug to the hard stuff? Probably not but this makes interesting reading bit.ly/DrJrBllGtwy

    Influential tech investor slams Silicon Valley for adopting techniques that encourage compulsive media consumption bit.ly/DrJscncmplsv

    Cash incentive-based neurofeedback goals enable control over functional connectivity. Could lead to brain therapies! bit.ly/DrJNfdbkConX

    Litmus test for the brain? bit.ly/DrJBrainpH

    Anyone for a brain-controlled Virtual Reality experience? The future will be here next year engt.co/2vfpGOA

    Coming Soon: sub-micron sized Nanoswimmer rockets to ferry drugs across the blood brain barrier bit.ly/2vblYXy

    Hot yoga reduces comfort eating in the mildly depressed bit.ly/DrJHotYog

    Finally someone’s figured out how to remove BPAs from drinking water safely, simply and, it seems, very thoroughly bit.ly/DrJBPAremov

    Specially engineered ceramic skull implant should improve future delivery of ultrasound/laser-based brain therapies bit.ly/DrJUSimplnt

    Who’d have thought: moderate alcohol intake is associated with lower rates of cognitive decline in elderly…cheers! bit.ly/DrJModBooz

    Slowly but surely we’re starting to uncover the biological mechanisms involved obesity bit.ly/DrJObesAdip

    Major breakthrough in our understanding of how brains perceive faces bit.ly/DrJFacePerc

    Neurofeedback can increase the incidence of alpha brainwave spindles but not their duration or amplitude bit.ly/DrJNeuroFdbk

    Aussies invest twice as much in bodily health than in their brain’s wellbeing. What would the figures be for you? bit.ly/2w0R42B

    Virus-restored plasticity – would you? bit.ly/DrJVrsRestPlst

     

    JUL 2017

    The pen is mightier than the keyboard bit.ly/DrJMightyPen

    Sugar linked to depression & memory problems in men @ERWatkins2 tinyurl.com/y7kvs27x

    A vital step closer to cheating death? Will we all be replenishing our hypothalamic stem cells come 2030? ind.pn/2eO8BqD

    In future schools will have to balance cognitive training with PE & brain stimulation, If this is anything to go by bit.ly/DrJCogXTrain

    Want to have your brain in a jar? And live to tell the tale? Believe it or not, this is now technically possible bit.ly/DrJBrainInJar

    Freeing up time by paying others to do your dirty work makes you happy bit.ly/DrJDechoreJoy

    I’d love to know what brain area this young lady’s therapists are pointing the TMS at – temporal pole? bit.ly/DrJ_TMStreat

    Here are some visual illusions to start the week and to remind you that your brain has no direct access to reality bit.ly/DrJIllusions

    How physical exercise prevents dementia bit.ly/2ukXISk

    I can’t quite believe how many of those born in the 21st century can reasonably expect to see their 100th birthday.. bit.ly/DrJ100isnew80

    Given heart delivers blood2brain 24/7 perhaps unsurprising that healthier heart in 20’s means healthy brain in 40’s bit.ly/DrJHeartHead

    Omega oils can be converted into cannabinoids that target the immune system to reduce inflammation bit.ly/DrJOm3Cann

    Human foetuses can tell the difference between spoken English and Japanese from inside the womb a month before birth bit.ly/DrJFoetLang

    These ravens have better planning skills than some people I know. ow.ly/qjyx30dJbE7

    Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never… oh wait, hang on, that’s not actually true nyti.ms/2u8b8Q0

    Let your kids play in the dirt. Immune systems, like brains, adapt to the local environment through exposure bit.ly/2u983km

    Composition of gut bacteria aged 1 seems to predict cognitive development aged 2. Whether or not this is causal is tbc bit.ly/2vxQ1pX

    WE NOW GO LIVE TO BREXIT pic.twitter.com/edf48mbqmj

    O2 and hyperbaric oxygen therapy reverses brain damage in drowned toddler bit.ly/2u1Bhjz

    Give us this day our daily crossword, forgive us our grammatic inaccuracies, deliver us from tongue-tiedness… bit.ly/2vwXV2I

    Fascinated by the brain? Here are some apps that explain how brains work. In sickness and in health bit.ly/2txqM5N

    A blast of light to spark dmPFC neurons and the previously subordinate mouse’s sumo skills went through the roof bit.ly/DrJSumoMice

    Flatcam: small enough to sit between skull/cortex to sense & deliver signals from ~millions of neurons to a computer bit.ly/DrJ_FlatCam

    Two large studies find that heavy coffee consumption predicts reduced mortality ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28693038 & ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28693036

    Immune cells pass dopamine molecules between them? (T cells -> B cells) Now I’ve heard it all bit.ly/DrJDopImmT2B

    Being generous to others makes us happy and brand new study published in Nature Comms helps to explain why bit.ly/DrJGive2BHap

    Video games and your brains bit.ly/DrJ_GameBrain

    Will we ever manage to simultaneously record activity from 1million neurons? $65M from DARPA says it CAN be done… bit.ly/DrJ_1MilNeur

    Look into my eyes, look into my eyes, your eyelids are starting to feel veeeeery heavy bit.ly/DrJ_Hypno

    I bought BEHAVE on a whim yesterday – now, having read this NYT review, I really can’t wait to get started nyti.ms/2uNCJVQ

    Psychopath brains overvalue immediate gratification over long term consequences even more than the rest of us bit.ly/2sHhuIA

    Brain wiring mapped in unprecedented detail using latest MRI technology bbc.in/2sHC7zC

    Brain training can work after all: 40% improvement in amnesic mild cognitive impairment after a bit of “Game Show” bit.ly/2t7SHfs

     

    JUN 2017

    Brain plasticity can occur in a “blastic” or a “clastic” direction. You have the power of controlling the switch -Dr. Merzenich In other words brain plasticity can have positive and negative consequences depending on what you do with your lifestyle choices

    Cockatoo drumming film bitly.com/gcwsDrumming

    High fat diet causes weight gain by increasing microglial cells and inflammation in the mouse hypothalamus bit.ly/2sNfVEj

    For those teaching pre-school kids to read, beware picture overload.. no more than one illustration per page is best bit.ly/2tLL7IT

    Higher IQ aged 11 predicts better chances of making it to 80 bit.ly/2tpqxxc

    Gambling on the Dark Side of Nudges: bit.ly/2tTpm72

    Why our brains need us to keep moving bit.ly/2scBind

    Regular moderately-intense exercise helps to delay onset of Alz, even in genetically-prone people ti.me/2sUbQ2O

    By many accounts, we’re experiencing an epidemic of anxiety, and several experts pin the blame on our smartphones bit.ly/2tku8tR

    The mere presence of your smartphone reduces brain power, study shows bit.ly/2u8Vxym

    Overstated evidence for short-term effects of violent games on aggression ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28639810

    What is cognitive reserve? How we can protect our brains from memory loss and dementia bit.ly/2tWLCvH

    PET study indicates 6 brain areas implicated in OCD exhibit signs of greater inflammation than in non-OCD brains bit.ly/DrJ_OCD_Inflam

    Multitasking reduces efficiency by 40% in the vast majority of humans.. now we know (part of) the reason why bit.ly/2sDPm66

    Now THIS is brain art bit.ly/2rRm9av

    Food for thought bit.ly/DrJFood4Thought

    Short blog on research studying how playing Tetris directly after traumatising experiences can reduce flashbacks bit.ly/DrJTetTerTher

    Brain circuitry of hunger regulation involves intimate relationship between hypothalamus & insula: bit.ly/DrJHungerHypIns

    Great article explaining why development of brain computer interfaces must proceed hand in hand with ethics, or else bit.ly/2sA8J2f

    Don’t Text While Parenting – It Will Make You Cranky dld.bz/eYRf7

    A nice, succinct explanation of the biological processes determining sex and gender bit.ly/DrJSexAndGender

    How to Stay Sharp in Later Life on.dana.org/2sUlOAE

    Blue Brain team discovers a multi-dimensional universe in brain networks bit.ly/2sf3GUx

    Could Einstein’s quirky habits be responsible for his genius? Maybe you have a few of them too…find out here! bbc.in/2rRABO1

    Implanting pig brain chemical manufacturing plant (choroid plexus) into Parkinson’s patients’ brains looks promising bit.ly/DrJPigPrksRmdy

    Temporal interference stimulation to target deep brain areas without opening the skull has HUUUGE potential bit.ly/2satP7D

    New study confirms performance boost in creative thinking task by reducing left frontal brain activation via tDCS bit.ly/DrJcreativeZap

    Seven beers per week increases chance of brain shrinkage and white matter degradation (over the course of decades) bit.ly/DrJ7beersPW

    Temporal interference seems like a much smarter form of brain stimulation than TMS or tDCS: nyti.ms/2rw4HqT

    This is an armadillo’s defense mechanism pic.twitter.com/gUUNaOmu4O

    Memory loss and other cognitive decline linked to blood vessel disease in the brain bit.ly/2rQzVcj

    Einstein’s first wife was a physicist too, who contributed to his work. ow.ly/3JBY30ck9TH

    New! Cassetteboy vs Theresa May – youtu.be/p7iUYWMD77w

    Typing by brain sounds great. Up to the point where,like Trump,every silly idle thought gets broadcast to the world bit.ly/DrJtypebybrain

    Human brain replays memories in fast-forward bit.ly/2rKrOho

    Human faces reconstructed from monkey brain data bit.ly/DrJBrainFaces

     

    No Tweets In May (Went into hiding to finish new book)

     

    APR 2017

    Tiny ancient skull has ridges suggesting possibility of Broca’s area therefore speech + self-evident burial instinct bit.ly/DrJ_Naledi

    The coconut octopus uses coconut shells as protection against predators! pic.twitter.com/wInVITqwaG

    Sugary drinks aren’t great for your brain health, neither are diet drinks, probably best to stick to juice and water bit.ly/DrJ_OneDietSoda

     

    Flying car costing more than $1 million goes on show in Monaco reut.rs/2p1FBPg

    Whether zapping brains improves or degrades memories depends on the timing and AI, it seems, can help with that.. nyti.ms/2pYpgbi

    A new study adds to the oft-controversial research on the apparent antiaging properties of “young blood”: scim.ag/2oW9Qab

    Contraceptive pill reduces quality of life bit.ly/2oraNU2

    ..arrest the progression–>change Alzheimer’s disease into something completely different so it becomes liveable.. bbc.in/2pF4v5h

    Relapse-prevention apps connect recovering addicts to support and use AI to predict when relapse is likely to occur bit.ly/DrJ_RelaPrevApp

    SuperAgers suggest that age-related cognitive decline is not inevitable bit.ly/DrJ_SuperAgers

    Aha! moments observed in eye tracking data bit.ly/DrJ_Aha

    Efficacy of ayahuasca – a hallucinogen usually used in shamanistic rituals – tested in clinical trial for depression bit.ly/DrJ_Ayahuasca

    A UK company is creating edible water blobs that it hopes will eradicate the world of plastic waste. pic.twitter.com/k2jHsYRNND

    Music-induced awakenings in Alzheimer’s patients… surely it’s worth a try?! bit.ly/2odwUxV

    Let your mind roam free bit.ly/DrJ_MindWander

    When people detect a moral conflict, zapping (tDCS) their brain (right dlPFC) helps to keep them honest bit.ly/2onTiaq

    An update on the differences between male and female brains on the basis of an even bigger brain imaging study bit.ly/2p28yIk

    Anti-Parkinson’s virus therapy bit.ly/2oj7b9R

    You can really identify a signature of the dreaming brain” bit.ly/2oj3bWU

    Born to love superheroes: Research into the roots of justice may contain hints for solving social ills bit.ly/2ofjVyb

    Are you a night owl? This could explain why bit.ly/DrJ_NightOwl

    Marmite – not just delicious – new study says a daily dose can significantly change how your brain works: bit.ly/2oB3T3d

    Nearly every disease killing us in later life has a causal link to lack of sleep bit.ly/DrJ_SleepDeep

     

    MAR 2017

    Science may have got multiple sclerosis all wrong, now they’ve figured out it’s caused by B-cells not T-cells we may be able to nip it in the bud bit.ly/2ola0Fo

    Maturation of white matter connecting front of brain to back key to understanding others around age of 4 years okd bit.ly/2nzk8vP

    Understanding the role of cannabinoids in stress relief, bit by bit bit.ly/2nNKtH9

    tetraplegic man can move his arm again just by thinking about it with device that reads brain –> stimulates muscles bit.ly/2obLKIQ

    I’ve said it once,I’ll say it again: if you want you brain to age gracefully -it’s time to get your dancing shoes on nyti.ms/2njb8Zc

    holotropic breathwork..uses hyperventilation-induced fainting to achieve..an expansion of awareness bit.ly/2nuQLsS

    Without an intact anterior temporal lobe you’d never be able to keep up with all the gossip sciof.us/2ov2HKG

    3min film of Ed Boyden sharing his vision of how the merger between brain&machine will unfold in the coming years bit.ly/DrJ_BoydnCoPro

    Brain training to help people avoid the need for reading glasses in middle age? Now that would be pretty cool… nyti.ms/2nstfhN

    There is a journal called Religion, Brain and Behaviour bit.ly/2nVqV1d

    New Alzheimer’s test can predict age when disease will appear buff.ly/2ne7ySy

    Older mums can often be better mums according to Danish study bit.ly/DrJ_Oldermums

    Ditch the GPS, use your noggin bit.ly/2n4uBhe

    What do smartphones do to our brains? We still don’t know bit.ly/2nNQrW1

    Extract of funnel web spider venom can protect against stroke damage even when given after the event bit.ly/2mngQNd

    Sexual afterglow – still benefits couples 48hrs later bit.ly/2mIrGso

    Imaging neurons in vivo with a needle thin probe… bit.ly/2n6MP3f

    Tea please… any colour will do bit.ly/2nDyqtp

    Humpback whales are organizing in huge numbers, and no one knows why pops.ci/DEYPA6

    Clever fMRI drug smuggling study investigates differences between recklessness & knowingly committing a crime bit.ly/DrJ_DrugSmug

    Cognitive enhancing drugs can improve chess play, scientists show bit.ly/2mGhsfG

    Metacognitive therapy addresses thinking processes 2 help people reduce depressive symptoms by lessening rumination bit.ly/DrJ_MCT4Deprsn

    amateur scientists who like to experiment with their own mixes..aren’t afraid to use their own brains as lab rats bit.ly/DrJ_StackTwats

    HIV can get into brain & interfere with cognitive process by disrupting white matter,MRI can detect this fairly well bit.ly/DrJ_HIV_MRI

    If all the Ice melted: National Geographic’s Interactive map on Rising Seas – Geoawesomeness buff.ly/2mYYkKE

    Blueberry Brain bit.ly/DrJBlubryBrain

    Bigger brains aren’t always better, when you’re a sociable bird or insect, that is bit.ly/DrJSmSocBr

    2017 Winners of The Brain Prize: Peter Dayan, Ray Dolan and Wolfram Schultz for research on brain’s reward system bit.ly/2maRX4b

    Just bought my 1st robot! Although I can control it with my smartphone, sadly I can’t control it with my brain alone bit.ly/DrJBrainRobot

    OCD: Brain fails to send safety signals (vmPFC) as experience demonstrates perceived danger is no longer a threat bit.ly/DrJ_SafetySig

    Uncertainty is in the eye of the beholder (literally) bit.ly/DrJ_UncertEye

    Artificial Intelligence goes ALL IN;but will it wipe out online poker altogether? Would that be a good or bad thing? bit.ly/DrJ_AI_All_In

    Here’s something @mocost wrote about the possible role of the cerebellum in cognition and emotion bit.ly/2mDaM2O

     

    FEB 2017

    Stem cell transplants for human multiple sclerosis patients. Controversial yet encouraging. But does it last? bit.ly/DrJStemXplant4MS

    Dad’s who take cocaine around time of conception may be damaging their kids’ memory capacities bit.ly/DrJ_CokeDads

    Why parents seem to be blind to their kids’ extra pounds bit.ly/DrJ_PorkyKids

    Novel study investigates brain areas critical to the process of dreaming up funny captions bit.ly/DrJ_HumourGen #creativity

    Newborns can recognize the voices they’ve been hearing for the last trimester in the womb nyti.ms/2m3sgFv

    Digital reconstruction of a giant neuron that encircles the entire mouse brain go.nature.com/2lClhBV by @Sara_Reardon via @kenanmalik

    Never underestimate the power of bee brains. It’s amazing what a million neurons can be trained to do nyti.ms/2lAajNq

    Hair fine electrodes that can send electrical, chemical and/or optical information to and from the brain bit.ly/2mbhM72

    The TRAPPIST-1 star & 7 Earth-sized planets orbiting it, are relatively close to us; located ~40 light-years away: go.nasa.gov/2lvVN7G

    Brains better at divergent thinking tasks (related to creativity) have denser connectivity between left & right side bit.ly/2lGeTKz

    Huge study of 3,242 brains aged 4-63 shows consistent structural differences of those with ADHD vs others without bit.ly/DrJ_ADHDbrains

    Build up of iron in the globus pallidus is positively correlated with duration of cocaine use bit.ly/DrJFeCokeHed

    Standord scientists enable paraplegic man to type,using brain computer interface,at speeds of up to 39characters/min bit.ly/2kIp1mJ

    Many different compartments and barriers in the brain create multiple unique immune environments bit.ly/2lbQr2M #brain

    Sleep is a powerful source of resilience in difficult times bit.ly/2lwV34K …so stop looking at screens late at night sleepyhead

    That dopamine is involved in human bonding is less surprising than dual scanners doing fMRI/PET at the same time!! bit.ly/2kYBlv8

    A computer to rival the human brain – what’s it gonna take? bit.ly/2lNRxmM

    Autism detected in “cerebral cortex” from age<2 (narrowing it down to virtually anywhere on brain’s outer surface!) bbc.in/2lLOdc5

    Neurons in the amygdala fired 120 milliseconds earlier than the hippocampus bit.ly/2laFY8p

    Laughter is important. This made me laugh: bit.ly/2kzOhHD

    Using genetics to personalize diet for effective weight loss & disease prevention @DrJackLewis @DrMichaelMosley tinyurl.com/hhm8d28

    New generation brain implants stimulate neurons with magnetism rather than electricity to get around sticky problem bit.ly/DrJMagBranImp

    If anyone needs me, I’ll be playing with this whale song synthesizer whalesynth.com

    Opioid release vital to process of deriving pleasure from your favourite songs (or any pleasure for that matter?!) bit.ly/DrJMuOpiMusic

    A retinal cell has been identified that might just explain why more and more kids are becoming short sighted bit.ly/DrJMyopiaCell

    Study confirms the assumption that E-Cigarettes are far less toxic than real cigarettes bit.ly/DrJeCigsSafe

    Studying the mysterious condition of mirror touch synaesthesia bit.ly/DrJMirrorTouch

    Sleeping patterns all over the place? Time to go camping! Couple of days in the wilderness resets melatonin cycle bit.ly/2jQ6lvL

    Mini brains spontaneously produce mini blood vessels. All they need now is a mini heart and some blood and we’re off bit.ly/2jZ4W6Y

    How time in space changes brains bit.ly/2jv9o1p

     

    JAN 2017

    Using psychedelics to treat addiction – how to get the reduction in cravings without the hallucinations? bit.ly/DrJ_Ibogaine

    Hanger – it’s the real deal bit.ly/DrJHanger

    Could problems with the brain’s blood flow gatekeepers be a key part of problems like Alzheimer’s, ALS etc? bit.ly/DrJGateKeep

    Wisdom of the crowd is not always on the money, MIT scientists have figured out how to extract it better bit.ly/DrJBetCwdWis

    Imagine a neuropeptide that can induce gut to burn fat without stimulating appetite (in C. elegans, not humans, yet) bit.ly/DrJFatBurnFLP7

    New angle for treating aggressive form of brain cancer (glioblastoma) suggests prior drug devel. = wild goose chase bit.ly/DrJGlioBlaster

    Metallic hydrogen – it could change the course of humanity across the cosmos if we could use it to fuel our space ships bit.ly/2jf0MeW

    Why an LSD trip lasts so much longer than a cannabis high or magic mushrooms bit.ly/2jei7Vf

    Dreaming (REM) sleep accelerates pruning of certain brain connections, a process vital to reshaping teenage brains bit.ly/2jZz2ul

    A study of 500 MRI scans reveals the links between personality traits and brain structure bit.ly/2khAZjj

    A cautionary tale about the promises of modern brain science econ.st/2jaKI9q

    I’ve often wondered why so many schizophrenic people smoke so fast and intensely; this suggests they might be self-medicating bit.ly/2knNHw8tv

    Peripheral neuropathy (a health complication seen in diabetes, chemo, HIV) could be helped by anti-muscarinic agents bit.ly/2jJ7Eho

    Resensitising brain cancer to chemotherapy using old school anti-malaria drug bit.ly/2k3sCeg

    No meaningful difference in amygdala sizes in male vs female brains across 30yrs of MRI studies bit.ly/2jxgmBC

    Antibody targeting protein in Blood Brain Barrier reduces signs of brain ageing bit.ly/2iDLtap

    ALL ROWS NOW COMPLETE. With 4 new elements discovered Asia enters the hall of fame and the USA jumps to 2nd place. pic.twitter.com/XE5X7un5e0

    Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for psychosis found to be associated with measurable changes in brain connectivity bit.ly/2jVE6fM

    Mixing up names of your nearest & dearest is probably due to them being stored in your “people I love” brain directory n.pr/2jvE417

    Facebook wants in on Brain Control Interfaces bit.ly/2iyPqgR

    Neuroscience in practice to enhance your star gazing experience bit.ly/2iDexCn

    Monkey metamemory bit.ly/2iyA4sD

    Genetically-speaking you are 10% retrovirus – deal with it! bit.ly/2jf5fgE

    Who better than Russ Poldrack to review a book about what MRI can and can’t do? go.nature.com/2jeuDn5

    Turning mice into killers at the flick of an (optogenetic) switch n.pr/2j53LTZ

    The orbits of the stars in the vicinity of the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy buff.ly/2jffcrX

    Increased amygdala activity related to more heart disease (prob via elevated white blood cell-induced inflammation) bbc.in/2jmd1mt

    You can tell how old a person is from their brain’s glial cell health (if you chop their brain out for post-mortem) bit.ly/2icNCPb

    Just how smart is an octopus? Smarter than you think wapo.st/2ifbbW8

    Will nose-witnesses soon play a role in our courts of law? (“Eyewitnesses” are so 20th century) bit.ly/2i9qjG0

    Earth and the moon – as seen from Mars nyti.ms/2jqwQs8

    Mini-brains grown from stem cells taken from kids’ milk teeth can tell you a thing or two about their actual brains bit.ly/2icfvBT

    The mess that is tcDCS therapy 4 depression/addiction/fibromyalgia (good news) tinnitus/stroke (bad news) untangled bit.ly/2ival59

    Believe it or not foetal fMRI has arrived! Yes, that’s right, brain imaging in the womb… bit.ly/2i5LBUQ

    If learn (or revive) a 2nd language is one of your New Year’s resolutions for 2017, this might be motivating for you bit.ly/2iUkPfn

    16 year old’s ovarian tumour found to contain brain tissue that resembles a cerebellum and brainstem bit.ly/2iYwtW6

    Memory and cognition improvements in 65+ year old people if they take a regular 1-hour long siesta after lunch bit.ly/2iPwsqm

    Fusiform gyrus – containing region (FFA) for recognising faces – is ~13% larger in adults than kids bit.ly/2hXxvA6

    Interfering with vagal nerve function can help various health conditions – now it can be done with greater precision bit.ly/2iUpYDZ

    Carbon nanotube electrodes much better than conventional electrodes, but how to jam a “wet noodle” into the brain? bit.ly/2ifDcdq

    “It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.” Thomas sowell

    Finally FDA restrictions on antibiotic use in livestock. Can’t use the medically important ones anymore, at least. ow.ly/e7Za307Gqr2

    Some people (3-5%) simply get no joy from listening to music – now we know why bit.ly/2idYGHO

    Gaming that can help depressed people to feel better by helping them to focus bit.ly/2i9ICH2

    Prof Van der Meer (Norwegian University of Science&Tech) offers science-based tips for optimal ways to raise infants bit.ly/2iaftvq

    Reduced blood flow to Broca’s area (key area in speech production) in stutterers bit.ly/2iHtFPP

    Brain + Nature = Health bit.ly/2iI7iXX (NB that’s coming from someone who just finished a 1hr cross-country run in Richmond Pk – practise what I preach!)

    Nice synopsis of a few of the more notable achievements in neuroscience to arise over the course of 2016 n.pr/2irU5oA

     

    DEC 2016

    Vera Rubin, Who Confirmed Existence Of Dark Matter, Dies At 88 n.pr/2iwYGq9

    Hacks often write obituaries before celebs have died for quick release. Turns out brains do a similar thing with DNA bit.ly/2i2ndmj

    How genes can influence music’s impact on mood bit.ly/2hjT6XK

    When does brain development reach completion? nyti.ms/2hjNvB2

    The true hidden home of Christmas is in China bbc.in/1sDLrOC

    Could stoned drivers be more cautious? Maybe.. bit.ly/DrJStndDrivr

    How many different types of neurons there in the brain (even just the hypothalamus) blows my mind bit.ly/DrJHypothalNs

    ..a lesion in exactly the right place..can disrupt the brain’s familiarity detector&reality monitor simultaneously bit.ly/DrJImpstrLsn

    How to grow your own brain bit.ly/DrJGrwURownBrn

    New drug improving longevity & memory in animal studies of prion disease brings hope for fight against Alz. dementia bit.ly/DrJMuscAlzHope

    Schizophrenics more likely to try cannabis, but WHY would delusional people crave yet greater distance from reality? bit.ly/DrJSchizWeed

    Brain-inspired intelligent robotics: The intersection of robotics and neuroscience – a special booklet in @scienmag buff.ly/2i0kni6

    The truth behind baby brain bit.ly/DrJBabyBrain

    Brain Books of 2016 bit.ly/DrJBrainBooks16

    Talk about getting the wrong end of the stick… bit.ly/DrJOMG

    Dear Santa, If I’ve been good enough this year, please may I have a robotic arm controllable via 64 electrode EEG? bit.ly/DrJEEGcntlRobt

    If you want to hang onto your crystalline intelligence in later life don’t forget to eat your greens bit.ly/DrJEatURgreens

    Could thinning of the grey matter really account for risk aversion in older adults? bit.ly/DrJRskAvrsn

    Time passes fast, time passes slow and now neuroscience may finally have pinpointed brain areas that influence this bit.ly/DrJStpFstSloMo

    Could the impact of oxytocin on human behaviour boil down purely to synchrony bit.ly/DrJOxytosync

    Deep brain stimulation soon to use tiny coils (magnetrodes?!) to influence neurons w magnetism rather than electrons bit.ly/DrJMagnetrode

    Could increasing gamma band activity in the brain really help eliminate the beta amyloid plaques of Alzheimer’s? bit.ly/DrJGammaAlz

    Incredible to think that switching one pair of nucleotides in an ancient ancestor’s DNA trebled our brain volume bbc.in/2gZ4lDM

    If the way we breathe influences what we remember,I wonder if there are breathing techniques 2 help students revise? bit.ly/DrJBreathingMem

    Small double-blind trial shows that single dose of psilocybin can give 6 months relief from cancer-related anxiety bit.ly/DrJ_MushCancAnx

    I am Groot: Plants can do associative learning bit.ly/DrJ_IAmGroot

    Finally!! Potential for MDMA (ecstasy) as a therapeutic agent for PTSD to be investigated in a proper clinical trial bit.ly/DrJ_MDMA4PTSD

    Added sugar in our diet is bad, we know that, but I didn’t realise range of negative impacts, like reduced oxytocin! bit.ly/DrJExcessSugar

    Africa’s sunshine could eventually make the continent a supplier of energy to the rest of the world bbc.in/2fMxtwX

    @PainConcern Irene Tracey neuroscience of pain interview is now back up on YouTube. Sorry for the protracted wait! bit.ly/DrJPainStem

    @hugospiers et al have been doing a fantastic job of getting the globe involved in science research through gaming.. bit.ly/SeaHeroQst

    TMS reawakens access to latent memory (link to orig Science paper at end of article) bit.ly/2guWFc1

    Parkinson’s disease may start in gut & nose (ie neurons most exposed to environment) 10yrs before it hits the brain! bit.ly/2glBbOL

    Quite possibly the strangest sex study i’ve ever read about.. and there is a LOT of competition for that accolade bit.ly/2gGJt4v

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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  • 2016 in Review

    2016 has been quite a year:

    On the 3rd January I went for a dip in a freezing cold lake in the Dutch countryside with a man who has learned to control his immune system using breathing techniques in combination with cold water immersion.

    Between January and May I wrote a book Mice Who Sing For Sex with my Geek Chic podcast co-host Lliana Bird. That hit the shelves in October and flew off them in the run up to Christmas.

    I flew out to the USA to work with a pair of NFL superstars and a supercar test driver to talk about how high performance athlete‘s brains work compared to the rest of us.

    An unexpected opportunity to appear on the sofa with Rylan for Big Brother’s Bit on the Side gave me the opportunity to use five brightly coloured jelly brains as colour code for different brain functions and used them to explain the cause of various errant behaviours exhibited by some of this year’s contestants.

    Participating in a debate organised by the Wellcome Trust on the Latitude Festival’s Literature Stage opened my eyes to the Porn Perspective.

    My TV highlight has to be a very enjoyable weekend that I spent spy on some unsuspecting guinea pigs with the BBC’s Michael Mosley a TV presenter of considerable experience and acclaim. Meet The Humans (working title) will be broadcast at some point on BBC Earth throughout the world in 2017. I learned a huge amount about what being a TV presenter is really all about and felt truly privileged to work with him and a crack team of Science TV producers and directors from BBC Bristol. Seeing how they all handled what was a huge logistical undertaking, with so many moving parts that innumerable things could have gone wrong, was a real privilege. All hands on deck performed with tremendous competence, efficiency and good humour throughout; even when the pressure was on and Sod’s Law threatened to tip the apple cart.

    The most notable achievement of this year career-wise is that, for the very first time, a show I’ve presented has been deemed worthy of a second series; not to mention a runner’s up prize for Best Science Series of 2016 at the Association for International Broadcaster’s Awards. Not bad considering we were pipped to the post by a documentary about a near perfectly preserved 5,000 year old man thawed out from a melting glacier. That’s pretty steep competition and I was only too happy to concede defeat to a series documenting such an extraordinary scientific discovery.

    Looking forward to 2017 there’s already plenty of exciting projects in the pipeline. My third book Science of Sin, scheduled for publication next autumn, is coming on leaps and bounds. I’ve wanted to write a book about the light neuroscience might be able to cast on the topic of Why We Do The Things We Know We Shouldn’t for ages. I’m very grateful to Bloomsbury Sigma for the opportunity to immerse myself in such a fascinating and diverse body of science.

    Filming for Secrets of the Brain 2 is already underway and, after the intensive period of filming, editing and voiceover ahead in the next four months, that particular seires scheduled to be ready for broadcast on www.insight.tv (ch 279 on Sky) over the summer. Happily it seems we’ve been able to re-recruit most of the team from series one. It is fortuitous that we could get almost everyone back because there really is no substitute for prior experience with this kind of show.

    The speaking circuit this year has taken me all over London, to Cheltenham, the Midlands, Barcelona, twice to Cologne courtesy of ITV Global / Germany and as far East as Berlin. My Neuroscience of Creativity talk always seems to go down particularly well and the C-HR festival of Creativity and Innovation, which took place in a beautiful architectural space – an abandoned department store slap bang in the centre of Berlin – was no exception. I must have hit a new Personal Best by answering questions from the audience for longer than the actual duration of the talk itself (90min talk, 150min Q&A)!

    Of all the ways I communicate the fruits of neuroscience research to the world, it’s the face-to-face contact with live audiences that I get the most personal satisfaction from. People always seem to have burning questions about their own brains, their kids, their ageing relatives and it gives me great pleasure to share what I know with others. So if you have an event coming up for which you have need of a motivational speaker that brings something a little different to the event, why not get in touch? I’ve got five 60-90 min talks, I can take off the shelf: Boosting Performance, Neuroscience of Decisions, Neuroscience of Creativity, Dealing with Change and even one on Gender Neuroscience that has turned out to be pretty effective at encouraging greater equality in the workplace.

    That said I’m always happy to make something bespoke to fit the specific event. I’m always happy to stick around afterward if the crowd fancies making the Q&A a bit more informal.

    All that remains to be said is to wish you happy holidays and a fantastic 2017.

    If you’d like to follow me on Twitter (@drjacklewis) you’ll get my daily tweets that flag the best of the neuroscience news that hits the lay press. The Geek Chic Weird Science podcast is still going strong after nearly three years, which can be accessed through iTunes, Podbay, Libsyn and many other podcast providers so if you fancy taking a lighter look at the world of science, that’s your badger. And finally, you’re at a loose end over the holiday season and fancy a break from the usual TV fare, then why not catch up on the (nearly) award-winning Secrets of the Brain by pointing your internet towards www.insight.tv (my parents are actually doing that right now…)

    Happy Christmas

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  • Porn Brain

    Last summer I was invited by the lovely people at the Latitude Festival to participate in a debate at the Literature Tent on the impact of online pornography on society.

    pornperspectiveonstage

    It was chaired by Dr Suzi Gage (@soozaphone) of Bristol (and by now Liverpool) University, known for her popular Guardian science column and podcast Say Why to Drugs. The other panelists were Martin Daubney (@MartinDaubney), former editor of lad’s mag Loaded for eight years and theatre-maker Christopher Green (@Kit_Green) creator and player of comedy Country ‘n’ Western heroine Tina C.

    My role was to bring the neuroscience perspective, Martin the media perspective and Chris was taking the arts angle. I got prepared quite a few weeks in advance and was stunned by what I found lurking in the academic literature. So I thought I’d share my main findings with you here in this month’s blog.

    When people think of addictions, compulsive consumption of various psychoactive substance is usually the first thing to spring to mind. Much research has demonstrated a hyper-responsiveness of the reward pathway – the ventral tegmental area in the midbrain and nucleus accumbens in the ventral striatum in particular – to drug-related images in the brains of people addicted to recreational drugs like, for example, cocaine. This body of research also demonstrates that the activity generated in the reward pathways of drug addicts to pleasant images of scenes unrelated to drugs, is somewhat diminished compared to non-drug takers. In other words, excessive consumption of drugs seems to subtly rewire the reward pathway so that it becomes more sensitive to visual scenes relating to their preferred recreational drug and less so (than normal) to everything else. It seems this is not just limited to drugs, a similar impact on brain function is seen in people who over-consume porn too.

    img_0510It is important to bear in mind that the reward pathway is not only important for generating feelings of happiness when we participate in pleasurable activities, but it’s also instrumental in predicting what choices might bring us rewards in the future, which means it is critically involved in decision making. It’s role in helping us evaluate the benefits of one option over another extends to the point where this system, in combination with other nearby brain areas, can be thought of as providing the very drive that motivates us to pursue one course of action over another.

    In recent times, research into excessive consumption of various products accessed through the internet – online gaming, gambling and pornography, to name but a few – also leads to behaviours that have all the hallmarks of addiction, not to mention the altered neurological responses outlined above. There has been some resistance to this idea in various academic communities, but the movement to have these “arousal” addictions included in handbooks of psychiatric illness symptom classification, and in particular the DSM-5, is starting to gather momentum.

    On the basis of a huge survey investigating the pornographic consumption and sexual experiences of 28,000 Italian teenagers it seems that, for about one in ten boys who consume explicit online pornography on a daily basis, the habit is interfering with their ability to engage in real life sexual activities:

    It starts with lower reactions to porn sites. Then there is a general drop in libido, and in the end it becomes impossible to get an erection

    Carlos Forsta, President of the Italian Society for Andrology and Sexual Medicine.

    This may at first glance seem to fly directly in the face of the stereotype of the ultra-horny teenage boy, brimming full of the very sex hormones that would usually ensure a hair-trigger sexual response to any possibility of coitus. But in light of research conducted many years ago by joint winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, Nikolaas Tinbergen, it starts to make a lot more sense. In experiments conducted with “supernormal” stimuli, he observed that birds preferred to sit on larger than normal and / or more colourful eggs constructed from plaster, rather than their own real eggs. Similarly, herring gull chicks would peck harder and more often at a fake adult herring gull beak with brighter or more numerous red spots than the real thing, in a vain effort to elicit a regurgitated dinner. The point is that the larger than real life stimuli seem to have short-circuited the birds’ primal instincts leading to a preference that would ultimately be deleterious to the survival of the bird’s progeny.

    It seems that the ubiquitous availability of explicit internet pornography is leading to a similar scenario in modern day internet addicted teenage boys. A subconscious preference for artificial, supernormal, explicit porn over actual sexual partners seems to be occurring with alarming regularity in adolescents who let their penchant for titillating pornographic films get out of control. In his TED talk entitled “Why I stopped watching porn” Ran Gavrieli gives an excellent and compelling account of some of the key differences between what pornographic films actually show and the relatively tame sensory stimuli involved in genuinely satisfying, intimate sexual behaviour between consenting adults.

    Essentially, he points out that themes typically conveyed on free online porn sites, such as female subordination and extreme close ups of penetration to name but a few, are the human sexual equivalent of the brightly coloured, super-sized eggs and beak markings from Prof Tinbergen’s experiments (just not in so many words!). Porn is a supernormal stimulus, dominated by explicit close ups of penetration that you simply can’t reproduce in reality (the penis and eyeballs will always be separated by a set distance, unless you are exceedingly flexible, of course). Inevitably the real thing pales into insignificance by comparison after sufficient daily use of explicit porn of virtually infinite variety. No wonder boys are struggling to get it up!

    img_0538This isn’t to say that there is no place for pornography in society. Regardless of your attitudes on this topic, it certainly isn’t going away any time soon. However it may be useful for porn fans to bear in mind the concept of everything in moderation. Once one genre of porn is no longer arousing there are many other categories to choose from. Once the relatively soft porn is no longer stimulating, casual browsing will always yield more explicit options. Eventually the kind of sexual activities we are likely to have access to in real life become insufficient to yield an erection for long enough to reach climax, which will inevitably lead to relationship problems. And nobody wants that.

    The good news is that abstinence from pornography is usually sufficient to enable normal biological sexual function to eventually return. Interestingly, in older men this takes two months, whilst in younger men it can take much longer: four to five months. Find out more in the Latitude Podcast of the Porn Perspective Debate.

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  • Secrets of the Brain

    SECRETS-OF-THE-BRAINI haven’t had a new TV series on the box for quite some time, but at 9pm tonight on Sky channel 279 my latest series Secrets of the Brain hits our screens. The first episode is all about memory. I take on the reigning world memory champion in a devilishly difficult mnemonic challenge and learn from him the techniques he uses to retain mind-bogglingly large amounts of information in a surprisingly short period of time.

    Secrets of the Brain is also available to stream in ultra-high definition at www.insight.tv and the first 3 episode have already been released, available to view at your leisure, anytime. Over the course of each of these 10 x 1 hour episodes we explore the depths of human brain function by meeting people with amazing brains and others with extraordinary brain malfunctions.

    DrJackAtIcemanLakeI hang out with the Iceman Wim Hoff to understand how we can all plunge ourselves into icy water with minimum discomfort by following a few simple techniques. I meet an amputee whose state of the art prosthetic limb has enabled him to conquer his phantom limb pain. I go car racing around the track at Goodwood as part of my investigation into how our perception of time can expand and contract according to what we happen to be doing at the time. I spend an uncomfortable night wired up in a sleep lab, meet people suffering with narcolepsy and keep some student guinea pigs up all night to gain a better understanding of the importance of sleep. I get hammered to investigate the effect of alcohol on creativity. I interview one of Europe’s leading ophthalmic surgeons as he conducts surgery to implant a telescopic lens into the eye of a patient suffering with macular degeneration. I meet someone with acquired prosopagnosia, who is completely unable to recognise faces, even those of his nearest and dearest. I dine on a delicious multisensory feat with a synaesthetic man to get a handle on how our sense can get cross-wired. Throughout this adventure I’m accompanied by Pete Heat; a man with hundreds of tricks up his sleeve that really help bring the science to life with some brilliant magic.

    Wired Up Sleep LabAll this, and more, coming up over the next few weeks in what I genuinely think might be my best TV work to date. The Brighton-based production company who made the series – Lambent Productions – are some of the loveliest TV people I’ve ever worked with. Every single member of staff went above and beyond the call of duty to make this series as good as it could possibly be. I’m very grateful to everyone who gave their absolute best every day and in particular Ollie Tait (co-MD of Lambent) with whom I worked very closely throughout. It’s always great to work with people who make you feel relaxed in front of camera and they really did make me feel extremely comfortable and relaxed. I’d almost go so far as to say a part of the family. And I really hope that comes across…

    As well as these monthly blogs you can also follow me on Twitter. Also, in addition to my first book Sort Your Brain Out, my second offering Mice Who Sing For Sex is now available to preorder. It is the book of the Geek Chic Weird Science podcast I do with Lliana Bird, telling the story of over a hundred weird and wonderful nuggets of research to hit the press from many different scientific disciplines.

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  • Racing Brains

    KoenigseggI’ve been digging around in the scientific literature recently in search of research investigating racing drivers’ brains. Having stumbled a handful of pretty incredible facts I thought I’d devote this month’s blog to sharing these with you.

    Over many thousand of hours of practice and experience the driver’s brains become honed to perform the incredibly demanding cognitive task of getting round the track, lap after lap, as fast as human possible, without spinning out of control. This is much more physically demanding than most people imagine. For instance, the forces delivered through the steering wheel when travelling at up to 200 mph on a typical track can reach a magnitude equivalent to carrying 9 kg in each hand. Maintaining the intensely focused concentration required to deal with the stream of rapidly changing sensory information also requires razor sharp reflexes and amazingly fast reaction times. In fact, one study demonstrated that there is no overlap in the spread of reaction times between elite and amateur racing drivers (as measured by the Vienna Reaction Apparatus). In other words, the slowest reaction times for the elite drivers across the whole experiment were still faster than the best reaction times logged by the amateurs.

    adrenalsAnother biological specialisation exhibited by the elite drivers is their capacity to produce adrenaline. Their adrenal glands are larger than the rest of us so that they can produce more of this vital performance-enhancing hormone under high pressure racing circumstances. Adrenaline increases blood flow to the brain, heart and skeletal muscles, inducing an elevated heart rate and ventilation, whilst narrowing the blood vessels that feed other organs like the digestive system. This improves reaction times and the strength of muscular contractions to enable fight or flight to take place; or both as is the case in racing drivers. This is not specific to racing drivers. Athletes from many different sports have been found to have an enlarged adrenal gland, something referred to in the literature as the Sports Adrenal Medulla.

    A further study compared the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline (primary neurotransmitter of the sympathetic nervous system) in elite racing drivers as they cycled to exhaustion in a staged bike ride versus whilst racing their cars. They were found to produce double the quantity of adrenaline whilst racing, as measured via detection of metabolites in their urine. I found this finding particularly extraordinary. You might have imagined that exercising to exhaustion would be more demanding on the body, but it just goes to show how cognitively demanding racing is. Presumably the extra adrenaline is required to help the brain deal with cognitive demands.

    retrosplenialSeveral studies have scanned the brains of elite racing drivers using fMRI revealing that there is relatively little activity across the cortical surface compared to amateur drivers. This is thought to reflect the fact that racing is simply less taxing for the elite drivers. Much more of the cognitive processing required to manoeuvre the car around a constantly changing terrain at great speed can be handled subconsciously, freeing up precious conscious resources for dealing with unexpected occurrences.

    Their extensive training also seems to have led to some racing driving-specific brain specialisations as they appear to exhibit greater activation in the retrosplenial cortex. This area is known to be involved in creating a view-independent model of environment being navigated. In other words it enables them to build a picture of the whole track in their mind’s eye so that they have an awareness of what to expect beyond the next turn. This skill is clearly vital to staying on the ideal racing line.

    IMG_8062I recently pitted my own amateur racing skills against Christoffer – the official test driver of the Koenigsegg supercar – in an ultra-realistic simulator of Spain’s famous Ascari race track. The real thing, which he drives on a daily basis, is capable of producing 1,400 brake horsepower! Putting that into context, that’s two and a half times more powerful than a top of the range Ferrari! I don’t think it will come as any surprise to hear that he smashed me out of the park.

    In addition to these monthly blogs you can also follow me on Twitter for a daily download of the most interesting neuroscience research to hit the press. In addition to my first best-selling book Sort Your Brain Out, my second Mice Who Sing For Sex is now available to pre-order and tells the story of over a hundred weird and wonderful nuggets of research from full the length and breadth of scientific research.

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  • The Iceman Cometh by Dr Jack

    Have you ever heard of the Iceman? He is a remarkable Dutchman who has developed what seems like genuine superpowers. His many accomplishments include hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro wearing just hiking boots and shorts, swimming underwater for over 50m in a frozen Finnish lake and running a marathon 200m north of the Arctic Circle. However the most impressive thing about this particular real-life superhuman is that far from claiming to be unique, instead he boasts that anyone can do it. In the process of taking steps to prove this to the doubters he has brought the Wim Hoff method under scientific scrutiny which has led directly to an amazing discovery – we really can control our immune systems!!

    IMG_7430I choose to write about this now because on 1st Jan 2016 I had to shrug off my hangover to fly to Amsterdam. On the 2nd Jan 2016 I met up with a Professor of Immunology to discuss the latest published scientific studies on the Iceman and his disciples designed to test and ultimately explain the mechanisms though which their impressive abilities to withstand the pain of freezing cold temperatures might be achieved. Then on the morning of 3rd Jan 2016 I finally met Wim Hoff and by midday, after just an hour’s training, I was neck deep in a cold lake in the middle of the Dutch countryside with 300 enthusiasts. Life can be strange sometimes.

    What I learned over the course of these few illuminating days in the Netherlands at the beginning of the month is that the Wim Hoff technique essentially involves three key processes: hyperventilation, cold immersion and a meditative mind state. Better still, each stage actually feeds into the next in a scientifically plausible manner.

    Hyperventilation – what is it good for?

    When we think of hyperventilation most people focus on the fact that it will saturate the blood with oxygen thus enabling more energy to be released when performing some kind of physically or mentally demanding task. Of course by breathing in and out, deeply and rapidly, for prolonged periods of time (in my case 3 sets of 30 full inhalation/exhalation cycles) as well as increasing oxygen input it will also eliminate more of the major waste material of metabolism that is carbon dioxide. And this, it turns out, is the most important part of the equation when it comes to withstanding environmental temperatures that would usually be deemed to be painfully cold.

    When carbon dioxide is dissolved in your blood it forms a weakly acidic solution called carbonic acid. So the more carbon dioxide in your blood the more acidic it is. Conversely by removing more and more of this carbon dioxide from solution you can consciously exert control over your blood’s pH by making it increasingly alkaline. In fact, it turns out that a pro like Wim can shift his blood pH from 7.2 right up to a more alkaline 7.85. Now that might not sound like a huge difference, but bearing in mind that on a scale that runs from 1 (extremely acidic) to 14 (extremely alkaline) this make 7.2 more or less bang on neutral and 7.85 is getting into the realms of weakly alkaline.

    Carbon_Dioxide_Transport

    Alkaline blood – so what?

    So what happens if you make your blood weakly alkaline through a few bouts of hyperventilation. I’ll give you a clue, why would women in the process of giving birth to a child instinctively hyperventilate? Pain relief. You see what Wim stumbled upon as he was experimenting with different techniques to try and find the peace of mind he sought during the years after his wife died in 1995 leaving him to raise 4 children single-handedly was that by making your blood every so slightly alkaline you render pain receptors inoperable.

    There is a special “trimer” protein inside your skin’s nociceptors – the specialised receptors embedded in your skin that send electrical messages to the brain that end up being perceived as painful whenever a potentially damaging stimulus (like extreme cold) is detected in the environment. Trimers are so-called because they are formed from three separate strings of amino acids that wrap around each other to form a complex structure with a very specific function – signalling pain. But in the presence of slightly alkaline blood these three parts separate rendering the pain receptors unable to send any signals. Therefore the invigorating cold can be experienced in the absence of an associated perception of pain! So simple, but so clever.

    How Cold Immersion begets a Meditative State

    As I discovered on that cool day in early January, once you’ve got your blood alkalinity up through hyperventilation you can immerse yourself in cold water without feeling any pain. You do feel the cold, just with the aversive component of this experience switched off. And it was this experience of cold without pain that helped Wim to focus his mind not on the horrors of the past, not on the worrying aspects of the future, but to be centred entirely on the present. The exhilarating feeling of having the cold pressing in from all sides whilst in a state of undress. Getting into a meditative state through cold immersion was the only technique that reliably helped him to stay “in the moment” sufficiently to achieve the peace of mind he was looking for.

    IMG_7427Wim Hoff is a lively character. Sitting still in peace and quiet is simply not his style. He is almost perpetually in motion. Any spare moment he will take the opportunity to do some chin ups, balance his body on his elbow like some kind of breakdance fiend or simply do the splits. And this is a part of the overall process of becoming the Iceman. In addition to the cytokines released in response to regular cold exposure, Wim’s body is also thought to release myokines – messenger proteins released from active muscles. The combination of these influences means that his DNA is being read differently from the rest of us more sedentary modern humans.

    Hyper Life versus the Easy Life

    It’s almost as if Wim has managed to trick his body into reverting to caveman mode. There is scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that after decades of leading a hyperactive, hyperventilated life including daily exposure to extreme conditions, every single one of his cells has started to read off a different set of genes to the rest of us. I’ve never met anyone with more energy, yet he doesn’t eat breakfast or lunch, just one (presumably huge) meal in the early evening, which is probably how our ancient ancestors dined having spent the whole day hunting and foraging for the evening meal. We modern men and women on the other hand spend our days ensconced in centrally heated / air conditioned homes and workplaces, spending the vast proportion of our days sedentary with packed fridges just a few steps away and so our bodies switch on genes that adequately support this easy life.

    A New Perspective

    IMG_7429Many diseases that used to kill off our ancestors in huge numbers are now firmly under control thanks to the marvels of modern medicine. Of those which still place our lives and quality of life in peril, several involve and element of over-activity in our immune systems; so-called autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, to name but few. Wim’s brave auto-experimentation, combined with his profound desire to bring his discoveries firmly under the scrutiny of science have enabled the revelation that he has incredible control over his immune system. He (and volunteers who have followed his approach under clinical conditions) can bring down the levels of pro-inflammatory IL-6 and IL-8, whilst boosting levels of anti-inflammatory IL-10 to the point where he doesn’t get sick when exposed to bacterial endotoxins. Whilst control subjects respond to the toxic injection by shivering feverishly within about half an hour, the Iceman sits there unperturbed by the nasties in his bloodstream. The potential to learn his technique in order to reduce overactive immune systems and thereby defeating various autoimmune diseases is bringing hope to many whom had previously lost faith in prospect of a cure.

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs, you can follow me on Twitter (@drjacklewis) for daily updates on breakthroughs in neuroscience, buy my first book Sort Your Brain Out at all good bookshops and see me back on your TV’s very soon in two brand new series on insight.tv and Red Bull TV!

     

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  • Brain Benefits of Mindfulness – PART 1

    Hippie-MeditationI used to think that the practice of “mindful meditation” was exclusively the preserve of yogis, Buddhists and New Age hippies fresh back from an extended voyage of self-discovery around Asia. If you’ve ever found yourself caught up in a conversation with an over-enthusiastic traveler fresh back from their adventures you’ll know what I mean. Such folk have usually undergone a wholesale transformation from fairly conventional individuals into barefoot, sandalwood-scented, Thai-dyed, hemp shirt and trousers wearing, bead bracelet bedecked eccentrics who preach the stupidity of capitalism and the supremacy of the compassionate mind-set at any and all available opportunities. My attitude has changed fundamentally in recent months.

    A recent review paper (in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, no less) evaluating the flurry of scientific investigations into the possible benefits of practicing mindfulness that have accumulated over the past ten years or so, has given me a fresh perspective. To my surprise it turns out that there is plenty of early evidence attesting to “beneficial effects on physical and mental health; and cognitive performance.”

    WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?

    Cluttered MindMindfulness is actually a very simple concept to grasp, if only we’d give it a half chance. From the moment we wake to the moment we go back to sleep our minds are cluttered with innumerable thoughts.

    These thoughts tend to focus on the past and the future: conversations, experiences and interactions that occurred in the past and hopes, ambitions, fears and other concerns regarding the future. Mindfulness encourages the development of attention directing and emotional regulating capacities that enable us to focus on the present moment. Ultimately, by getting in the habit of focusing on what we target with our conscious awareness, rather than just allowing ourselves to be buffeted by whatever stimuli, thoughts or feelings happen to flicker through our minds, we can achieve a greater self-awareness.

    GETTING STARTED

    Mindful-Happiness_Breath-Meditation-Practices-BreathingPaintingThere are many different ways of achieving a mindful brain state but typically the beginner is encouraged to start by focusing on their breath. They are asked to breath deeply, in and out, right into the belly to ensure their diaphragm is being used to full effect. Whilst performing these simple actions they are regularly reminded to bring their attention back to their breath whenever the mind wanders elsewhere, to notice the cool air passing in through the nostrils on the inhale and the warm air passing out again on the exhale. After a few minutes of this, you are usually instructed to re-direct the focus of your attention on different body parts, moving systematically around the body. Notice the feeling of clothing on skin, upward pressure of the floor (or the chair) on your buttocks – move your mind’s eye from your toes, gradually up through the legs, into hips, up your back, across your shoulders and down your arms to your finger tips.

    FOCUS AND RE-FOCUS YOUR MIND

    When thoughts pop into your head, as they invariably will, the idea is not to block them or force them out, but simply to acknowledge them without engaging too deeply; focusing attention back on your breath, or touch sensations in a certain body part.

    FocusIt sounds extremely simple (too straightforward to result in any meaningful benefits surely?!) but most of us are ingrained with deeply entrenched habits of thought such as worrying about events in the past or future or perpetually seeking some form of stimulation that it can take a while to achieve the goal of quiet contemplation of bodily sensations for more than 20 or 30 seconds at a time. But for those who stick at it – regularly, intensively and consistently over many weeks and months – and gradually build their ability to stay in this mindful state for 5, 15, 30, 60 mins at a time, a wide variety of benefits are achievable. And the latest neuroscience studies into mindfulness are homing in on what it going on inside the brain as a result of all this practice.

    To find out about how mindfulness changes the brain please click here.

    If you love science geekery then my weekly science podcast Geek Chic’s Weird Science may well be right up your alley. It’s available on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn and podbay, with the delectable Lliana Bird who presents every Fri and Sat nights on Radio X.

    I also regularly share the best of the day’s neuroscience breakthroughs on Twitter so if you’d like to follow me, please click here –> @drjacklewis

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  • Brain Benefits of Mindfulness – PART 2

    In part 1 of this blog I broadly described the benefits of mindfulness and what it involves. Here I dig into the detail, outlining the parts of the brain that appear, on the basis of a recent review of many brain scanning studies, to be most consistently impacted by the regular practice of mindfulness.

     

    NEUROPLASTICITY IN ACTION?

    Attention

    Using MRI scanning to focus on differences in the physical structure of brains has revealed that the anterior cingulate cortex (highlighted in yellow in the below image), often implicated in studies of attention, is physically thicker and the underlying white matter denser in practitioners of mindfulness who are highly experienced as opposed to those who are relatively inexperienced.

    MRI_anterior_cingulate

    Emotional Regulation

    Moderate to severe stress is associated with high levels of circulating cortisol (a “stress” hormone). This is associated with increased density in the amygdala (highlighted in red in the below image) – a structure deep within the tips of the left and right temporal lobes and vital for orchestrating rapid responses to perceived danger. Decreased tissue density is observed within several prefrontal regions and the hippocampus – which also resides within the core of the temporal lobes – serving several memory-related functions and vital for many aspects of cognition. Regular practice of mindfulness appears to reverse this. Cognitive impairment is reduced and presumably an increase in synaptic connectivity accounts for the increase in tissue density within the hippocampal / prefrontal cortex. The enlarged amygdala shrink – presumably due to reductions in the number of synaptic connections between neurons in this region – which is also associated with a reduction in anxious feelings /  the attenuation of heightened perception of threat, back down to normal levels.

    amygdala_mindfulness

    Self-Awareness

    The default mode network (DMN) describes a group of brain areas that are activated in MRI brain scanning studies when participants are “in between tasks”. At first these activations were thought to reflect the brain at “rest” or in “default mode.” After a few more years of research, during which this same set of activations cropped up under circumstances that couldn’t reasonably be described as “restful” the original conclusion was revised. Considering all the studies in which the DMN kicked into action it seemed much more likely that it relates instead to “mind-wandering.”

    GhostbustersMarshmallowmanIn the original studies, when the participant was instructed to “rest” they would invariably use this period to self-reflect or daydream about something completely unrelated to the experimental task (I certainly did when I volunteered for various MRI studies – it’s impossible not to – anyone that’s seen Ghostbusters should know that).

    A couple of years ago when I conducted a series of interviews (British Neuroscience Conversations) with various big hitting neuroscientists at the British Neuroscience Association’s conference, neuropsychopharmacologist Prof David Nutt pointed out that, if our “ego” or the “self” lives anywhere in the brain the Default Mode Network is the best candidate.

    DMN in meditationThe medial prefrontal cortex (labelled DMPFC for the dorsal/upper part and VMPFC for the ventral/lower part) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), i.e. the core DMN regions, were less active in experienced versus inexperienced mindfulness practitioners. As one of the primary aims of many mediation practices is to selflessly accept thoughts and feelings in a non-judgemental, compassionate way – the reduction in these neural correlates of “ego” may well reflect a degree of success in this endeavour.

    So inspired have I been by these revelations of fairly solid early evidence attesting to a likely neuroplastic impact of regular practice of mindful meditation on brain areas involved in modulating attention, emotional responses and perhaps even ego that earlier in the year I went to Mykonos for a retreat to immerse myself properly (opening the invitation to anyone who faniced coming along).

    Since then I’ve gone on to develop a #brainboost campaign for Weight Watchers in order to help tackle the obesity epidemic by getting people’s brains ready for healthier eating by practising mindful eating, performing a bit of daily brain training to boost their working memory and learning some simple brain hacks, all with a view to eating more strategically.

    slider-eating-mindfully-bookDuring my research for this project I came across a nice little book on mindful eating that I would highly recommend: it’s called Eating Mindfully by Susan Albers. Personally I find a lot of books on this topic extremely cringeworthy, but Susan Albers describes the practical tips on how to avoid mindless / emotional eating through mindfulness in a very straightforward manner.

    My own book “Sort Your Brain Out” includes a chapter on the kind of foods and eating habits that are good and bad for the brain. In addition, I do a weekly science podcast available on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn and podbay, with the delectable Lliana Bird who presents every Fri and Sat nights on Radio X. And I regularly share the best of the day’s neuroscience breakthroughs on twitter (@drjacklewis).

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  • Adverts Encouraging Use of Tech to Subdue Kids Could End In Tears

    A new Vodaphone advert hit our screens recently and I hate it with a passion. My gym seems to have it on a loop at the moment and every time I see it I progress through a variety of emotions ranging from mild disappointment to abject rage. It starts innocently enough, depicting a bus weaving it’s way across a patchwork quilt of luscious fields. England’s green and pleasant lands, we might assume. The driver is keeping a kindly eye on his customers through the rear view mirror, a young woman is dozing on her man’s shoulder, a suited middle-aged businessman is reading his newspaper and a teenage girl is listening to music on her headphones. One row in front of our lovers a mum finds herself unable to pacify her crying toddler. We’ve all been there. It’s not a pleasant experience when the calm and tranquility is pierced by the ululations of an irate infant child. One-by-one the cast make faces betraying their discontent over the bawling nipper. In such situations – what can you do? Other than grin and bear it?

    VodaphoneAdOn this particular bus, in this particular locale, a hero is at hand. In a bid to bravely defend his belle from her rude awakening, that self same man (one row behind the squalling squib) unsheathes his smartphone. And using the “Power of 4G” summons a cartoon to his screen with which to mesmerise and thus pacify the aforementioned disconsolate child. Miraculously the tears dry up immediately, the sobbing quickly replaced by smiles and giggles of joy. Peace reigns over the bus once more and glances of appreciation ensue.

    The boyfriend/man/husband presumably earns himself a family-sized haul of brownie points from girlfriend having demonstrating not just a strong capacity for empathy but a clear aptitude for child wrangling (what a great dad he could be!). Mum is palpably relieved that the blight to everyone’s day has been appropriately dealt with by this marvellous stroke of genius (so embarrassing when he plays up like that!). Even the stressed out businessman seems to have gone a few shades of purple lighter. The teenage girl goes as far as taking off her headphones, momentarily, to revel in the delicious, unexpected peace and quiet before breaking into a private smile. In the estimation of these fine bus passengers, the holder of the phone is clearly nothing less than an absolute legend.

    Dora_The_ExplorerDora the Explorer is the chosen cartoon and it’s a good choice (a much better choice than Teletubbies, for example). Inexplicably, the language she utters in this British version of the ad is Spanish. I may be showing my ignorance here. Perhaps Dora the Explorer is always aired in it’s original tongue. But it occurred to me that just maybe the ad was cheekily alluding to possibility that the kid might even start to pick up a new language as a fortuitous side effect of this timely intervention. Such is the “Power of 4G”. It’s just a shame that the evidence from several studies indicates that too much screen time spent goggling at idle entertainment displaces valuable time doing other things in the real world that really facilitate a child’s neurodevelopment. Surely encouraging the habit of endlessly distracting kids with smartphones, tablets and laptops throughout their entire childhood is only going to perpetuate this problem, not to mention fueling a boom in short-sightedness.

    It’s not just Vodaphone who are at it. Nissan have also released a TV ad recently for the Pulsar. Excitingly it has automatic braking. For those unfortunate circumstances where the driver’s brain is distracted away from the road at precisely the moment the vehicle in front decides to slam on the brakes without warning. The vital milliseconds saved by circumventing the pesky human can make the critical difference between a dangerous fender bender and safely completed journey.

    Nissan Ad Zombie ChildrenThe key message throughout is that the car is carefully built around the driver and therefore every conceivable problem has been anticipated and addressed. In the closing scene two children appear in the back seat fidgeting, shouting and generally being… well… children. In the blink of an eye technology has magically teleported into their midst – the rowdy boys instantly transformed into well-behaved, docile and, most importantly, silent little angels: one absorbed by a tablet, the other gazing out of the window listening to something on a pair of expensive looking headphones (let’s hope it’s my podcast). That’s right kids. Do not interact with each other. That would just cause a disturbance to your father, or whoever he is. Communication must be discouraged when in ear shot of your elders and betters. And remember: silence is golden!

    My issue with these ads is not Susan Greenfield-esque. I don’t believe that technology is good or bad. But I do think that to unquestioningly consume limitless hours of screen entertainment at the expense of all other activities would have negative consequences for brain development across childhood. My objection to these ads revolves around that fact that they are normalising, if not positively encouraging, child-rearing behaviours that are likely to be deleterious to the best interests of the next generation.

    Study after study has demonstrated that what kids really need if their brains are to develop optimally throughout childhood is lots of interaction with other people. Ideally in the context of unstructured play. Keeping them perpetually spell-bound by computer games, films or cartoons is very much against their best interests.

    telly tubbiesInfants plonked in front of Teletubbies for hours on end are measurably retarded in their language development and verbal expression in comparison to those rarely exposed to screens in their first 2 years of life. This is ironic given that, allegedly, a large team of child psychologists were assembled by the BBC to consult on what elements should be included in order to optimise neurodevelopment.

    Admittedly endless hours of interacting with young kids are shattering. And undoubtedly the most effective method of conjuring some much needed peace and quiet from the endless barrage of questions, perpetual motion, mess, mood swings and tears are screen-based innovations designed specifically to captivate young minds. But the easiest route is rarely the best path and whilst this approach may well be very convenient for frazzled parents it is demonstrably not best for the child.

    Advertisers will jump on any scenario that their intended market might be able to relate to so the theme of pacifying noisy kids with tech is not surprising. Yet it supports the proliferation of lazy, unhelpful parenting tricks that ultimately work against the best interests of a whole generation of humans. Whether or not this amounts to a whole hill of beans in the long run is yet to be seen. Yet from what is known with any certainty so far, there are clear indications that screen time should be monitored and possibly limited, or else it will displace the human face-to-face interactions that so beautifully sculpt young brains in preparation for a long life of interacting with other humans.

    buggy phoneIf you want a child’s neurodevelopment to proceed optimally you should, in my humble opinion, forego the lure of using technological paraphernalia to distract them – unless you are carefully restricting its use at other times – and instead encourage them to engage in some form of play in the real world. And whilst we’re at it you should ensure that as much as possible you give them your full attention. Having your eyes on your smartphone whilst talking to your child is a terrible example to set. So much of communication happens via eye contact and active (as opposed to partially distracted) listening, so if you rob your children of valuable experience with this mode of interaction then their communication skills and social dexterity will suffer.

    I’m not saying people should consign their tablets to the rubbish, nor permanently ban children from using all tech. I’m merely encouraging parents to avoid using these tactics habitually. Save it for when you really need it and you will help your kid to develop the full range of skills, both hard and soft, to give them the best possible start in life.

    And if you think I’m a luddite after this rant you’d be wrong. If you explore my blog further you’ll find plenty of articles relating to the brain benefits of various computer games. Everything in moderation I say (unless we’re talking about working memory training using the Dual N-Back task or reading books in which case I see no harm in overdoing it so long as combined with a healthy social life :-))

    As well as these monthly blogs I do a weekly podcast – Geek Chic’s Weird Science – and daily tweets about breakthroughs in neuroscience and beyond – @drjacklewis.

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  • The Runner’s High by Dr Jack

    In previous articles on this blog I’ve described some of the many long-term brain benefits of regular exercise. These have mainly focused on the benefits that regular exercise offers to older people in terms of reducing the rate of age-related cognitive decline. But the brain benefits of taking regular exercise are applicable to everyone, young and old.

    Do It For Your Brain’s Sake

    runners-highPeople who exercise regularly have lower rates of anxiety and depression. They even boast greater cortical thickness in parts of the prefrontal cortex and the medial temporal lobe. Specifically brain scanning studies have demonstrated that the left and right hippocampus, fundamental both to creating memories and knowing where we are in space, are a little larger than in sedentary people. This increase in tissue thickness is thought to be indicative of a denser meshwork of synaptic connections reflecting a greater complexity of neuronal network. In other words several brain areas fundamentally involved in memory and cognition are able to perform better. What’s more regular exercise leads to improvements in mood and even helps you sleep better. And there is little better than a good night’s sleep for helping brains to reach peak performance.

    Exercise leads to increased levels of nerve growth factors like BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factors) that promote the birth and survival of new brain cells, synapses and development of new blood vessels. So this is thought to a likely mechanism for the changes in the thickness of various brain regions in people who take regular exercise and quite possible the long term benefits in cognitive ability and mental health.

    In my talks, workshops and first book (Sort Your Brain Out) I urge people to move away from thinking about exercise as a pastime motivated by the desire to improve the appearance of our bodies and more as something we should get in the habit of doing regular exercise to manage our mood / productivity in the short term and brain health in the long term. When people are feeling stressed out their motivation to hit the gym is often at rock bottom levels. A huge shame because exercise is exactly what would make them feel much, much better almost immediately.

    endocannabinoidsWhat Causes the Runner’s High?

    Athletes often talk of the “runner’s high.” This has long been explained as a result of endorphins released in the brain in response to moderate to intense exercise. It makes good theoretical sense because endorphins, the brain’s natural opiates, have the twin effect of numbing pain and making us feel good. The trouble is that up until 2008 there was little if any hard evidence to back this notion up. Yet further doubt was cast on the whole endorphin hypothesis when a study demonstrated that the runner’s high still occurred even when the effect of any released endorphins was blocked with a drug called naxalone.

    Looking elsewhere for a mechanism through which the runner’s high might be achieved researchers started to focus on a possible role for endocannabinoids. Similar in structure to the hundreds of cannabinoid chemicals found in the Cannabis sativa plant smoked recreationally in pursuit of a mood-enhancing effect, endocannabinoids are naturally produced throughout the brain.

    Subsequently, elevated endorphin levels were observed in a brain scanning study that compared brains that had recently completed a 2-hour endurance run compared to other brains that hadn’t (Boecker et al, 2008). So consensus now is that the anxiolytic effects of exercise are mediated by a combination of endocannabinoid and endorphin release in the brain.

    EndorphinsWhat Purpose Might the Runner’s High Serve?

    From an evolutionary perspective pain signals clearly should be switch on and off-able because they can be helpful or disabling depending on the context. Pain signals from damaged body parts helps us to avoid worsening the injury when at rest or engaging in gentle exercise, clearly an advantage when the priority is to allow a twisted ankle, strained knee or inflamed muscle to heal properly. But in the context of evading a predator or attempting to catch prey, such pain signals could lead to the huge potential disadvantage should it lead to getting caught and killed by the predator, or failing to catch the very food that might keep us, and our dependents, alive. The benefit of the analgesic / hedonic effect is that if a person is running to save their skin, then switching off the pain signal and inducing a light high to further compensate for any residual pain resulting in an unimpeded getaway makes perfect sense. Better to endure minor tissue damage if it is the only way to ensure you’ll live to see another day.

    runLittle and Often

    There is a huge amount of evidence to support the concept that regular exercise is extremely good for body and brain. The trouble is, we all know this but few actually get around to taking regular exercise. In my view the main reason for this is partly feeling overwhelmed by their busy lives but also probably involves exercising in the wrong way: when people do finally get around to exercising they often overdo it. Spending the whole of the next day aching all over will do little to incentivise them to take the trouble to exercising again any time soon.

    I would argue that little and often is the best policy. Even at the frantic pace of modern life everyone can fit in 20-30mins of exercise a day. That way, even if some weeks you only hit 50% of your target, you’ll still be getting your heart rate and breathing rate up, flooding the brain with highly oxygenated blood, endorphins, endocannabinoids and BDNF, 3-4 times per week – exactly the recommended dose!

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