• Resilient Brains

    What is Resilience?

    There are more definitions for resilience than you could shake a stick at. Here we look at resilience from the context of an adolescent’s capacity to endure periods of intense stress without any long term negative impact on their mental health. Some brains are simply better able to weather the psychological duress of having to deal with the types of common childhood stresses known to leave kids vulnerable to mental health issues. These include poverty, neighbourhood violence, struggling schools and mental health problems of the parent(s). If you take a few moments to mull it over, it becomes obvious how these circumstances could leave children frazzled by an overwhelming burden of worry.

    Here’s one perspective. If parents have no room for financial manoeuvre, only just managing to keep up with the bills week after week, then there won’t be any spare cash to help the kids to get their hands on the material goods that they covet; whether it’s clothing, toys or tech. Children from all walks of life can show a spiteful streak when it comes to giving hell to whichever kid happens to stick out in the playground for being different and there are many all too obvious signs of being poverty-stricken that may lead to being singled out. If the merciless teasing becomes relentless then it has the has the potential to become problematic. While the bullying aspect might seem like a relatively minor issue in the stress-inducing stakes compared to going to bed cold and hungry, but the child’s perception in these matters is everything. The social stigma attached to being less well off than everyone else can damage self-esteem, particularly when it’s the source of daily playground mockery.

    If a kid is made to feel ashamed over and over again at school, for whatever reason, then chronically elevated stress levels can be potentially damaging to some of the critical processes of neurodevelopment. And as we shall discover below, brain pathways that connect frontal lobe regions with those on the inner surface of the cortex, appear to be particularly important in the resilient brain.

    The other three sources of childhood stress could also be viewed as relentless, thereby having potential for impeding important neurodevelopmental processes: the ever-present threat of getting sucked into neighbourhood violence, the perpetual turmoil induced by a primary caregiver whose mental illness makes home life a living hell and schools in which teachers struggle to wrestle order from chaos – all can send levels of a child’s cortisol (one of the stress hormones) shooting up on a daily basis over extended periods of time.

    Often there is little hope of making a meaningful impact on the external factors that conspire to send cortisol levels rocketing (poverty, parental mental illness etc) so the focus has shifted to trying to understanding the key factors involved in determining whether a child ends up with a resilient brain or not. Can interventions aimed at helping to build resilience in young people actually work? And what makes the critical difference in the makeup of brains that are able to endure high levels of stress without any long term complications and those brains that succumb?

     

    Building Resilience

    According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, resilience is built up over the course of childhood and involves four special ingredients. Two of these relate to a sense of meaningful attachment – close supportive relationships with specific adults and a broader range of looser connections that embed a child within a defined community. The last two components relate to the development of specific cognitive capacities that improve a young person’s well-being by making them feel both able and in control.

    The first ingredient is supportive adult-child relationships. This might be a parent or relative, but it could also be a teacher, trainer, coach or anyone else that can be relied upon to provide support when it is needed. A person the child knows will take the time to listen to them, offer guidance and essentially help them to feel that they do not have to take on the trials and tribulations of life alone. The second ingredient is feeling a part of some kind of broader cultural tradition, one that might give the child a sense of hope and faith that transcends the mundane goals of normal, everyday activities. Usually groups that provide this are centred around one or other of the mainstream religions.

    As I outlined in my latest book The Science of Sin, while science is great at identifying the critical factors that lead to good physical and mental health, it usually comes up short when finding fixes for the problem of social isolation. Being a part of a sports team or hobby group can provide a sense of being part of a community, but these options pale in comparison to traditions that provide an overarching philosophy on how to live a good life, a dedicated building in which to come together with other members of the community and a policy of encouraging acceptance of well-intentioned strangers. I don’t believe in God myself, but I have seen the capacity for people’s religions to give them a sense of hope and support in the face of inconquerable odds. For this reason I can see why the Harvard Institute on Child Health would have observed that helping children to connect with others from their traditional faith group can help them become more resilient.

    One of the two cognitive facets that needs nurturing to build resilient brains is the development of self-efficacy: feeling able and in control. The other is the ability to adapt to change and self-regulate behaviour. This boils down to being able to maintain a sense of being in control, even when adjusting to changes that are beyond the child’s control. Learning to self-soothe – calming yourself down when emotions start running high – is a key component of this skill. Mindfulness meditation has been identified a great way to develop such skills. It has been implemented in schools struggling with poverty and violence with phenomenal outcomes in terms of improved attendance and scholarship (Read about a compelling example of this here).

     

    What Does A Resilient Brain Look Like?

    During the first decade of life various miraculous processes culminate in the reinforcement of one particularly important brain pathway in the corpus callosum – the huge bundle of brain wires that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain. A recent study by Galinowski and colleages investigated the structural differences in the corpus callosum of adolescents who had all endured significant and prolonged life stresses, yet some were deemed at low risk of developing mental illnesses (resilient) whilst others were at a high risk of psychological complications (vulnerable). But before we get into that, some context…

    Over the course of childhood our brains go through a series of vast and incredible changes. In the womb the outer cortex of every human foetus’s brain starts out as the tip of an extremely narrow and short tube. Over the course of the pregnancy, brain cells in this structure multiply at an astonishingly fast rate, migrating to form a six-layered sheet of densely interwoven brain wires (neurons) and a vast diversity of support cells (glia), eventually taking on its familiar, walnut-like, wrinkly, appearance by the time of birth. Having successfully made it’s way out of the womb and into the big wide world, the infant’s brain cell multiplication steps up a gear to achieve it’s full complement of 86 billion neurons by the age of five. From here on brain growth is mostly a case of making those neurons larger, developing the system of myelination whereby glial cells called oligodendrocytes apply a layer of electrical insulation to the brain wires to speed up the transmission of messages and each of those neurons make thousands of connections (synapses) with other neurons. MRI scans can track both of these processes with serial brain scans conducted at various stages of development – the progression of myelination can be observed by taking measure that correlate with white matter integrity and other measures can be used to track changes in the thickness of the surrounding grey matter. Interestingly, when a human brain reaches adolescence, rather than getting bigger and bigger, creating more and more synapses, the brain shifts gear .

    During adolescence the outer cortex of the human brain doesn’t simply get thicker and thicker. More new synapses are being created as the teen increases their repertoire of skills and abilities, but that is not the only process that is taking place at this stage in neurodevelopment. The synapses connecting together brain areas involved in supporting the improvement of their language, thinking, movement, memory and reasoning skills ARE being selectively bolstered, reinforced with extra synaptic connections to make the communication between relevant brain areas more efficient. Yet another process is simultaneously underway across the whole brain which causes the outer cortex to become thinner, overall, during the teenage years and beyond. The countless unused brain pathways are trimmed away, while those that are being used on a regular basis are maintained. As the former process of “synaptic pruning” progresses at a much faster rate than the latter, the net result is a thinning of the cortex. The rate at which different parts of the brain go through this process of cortical maturation has been tracked by an incredible team of neuroscientists in Paul Thompson’s lab. The process seems to reach completion first in the sensory parts of the brain at the back and sides of the brain, and last in the parts of the frontal cortex supporting higher level cognitive functions.

    Going back to the resilience study, Galinowski and colleagues observed that the integrity of the white matter tracts (NB neuronal brain wires wrapped in myelin are less dense than the outer cortex which is jammed full of synapses and cell bodies so it looks white in brain scans rather than grey) was higher in the front-most part of the corpus callosum in the brains of resilient adolescents versus vulnerable ones. When they ran tracer studies to see which brain areas were connected to each other by these particular information superhighways, the areas in question were frontal lobe regions involved in self-regulation and the anterior cingulate cortex; a brain area that should be familiar to anyone who’s read The Science Of Sin. The dorsal part of the ACC is known to be involved in the perception of physical and emotional pain specifically; and processing “conflict” more generally.

    The upshot is that the critical pathways that were observed to have better integrity (NB better system of insulating myelin to facilitate information exchange) in the more resilient adolescents may well be instrumental in enabling the prefrontal cortex to consciously dampen feelings of psychological turmoil. Presumably when supportive adult-child relationships and connections with the community are fostered in the first 10 years of life, as well as the facilitation of development of self-efficacy and self-control, these are the critical pathways that are protected against the negative impact of chronic stress. Now that we know where to look in the brain for hallmarks of resilience, we should be able to get a better handle on the effectiveness of other interventions that aim to nurture the capacity to endure an excess of stress without incurring psychological damage in the long run. Watch this space…

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  • Tech Companies that Bolster (or Harm) Feelings of Social Connectedness

    As my new book The Science Of Sin essentially argues that increasing a person’s sense of social connection improves their health (compared to social isolation), it occurred to me that we should start to label tech companies according to whether their overall impact on the depth of people’s sense of being socially embedded in a supportive community is improved or harmed by regular engagement. I’ve invented some hashtags in the vain hope that people might start playing the game of thinking about the impact of the technologies they use on their own sense of social connectedness and use #socialXplus to denote an opinion that it is a force for increasing the sense of being meaningfully connected with others (e.g. Twitter #socialXplus) and #socialXminus to tag those social media companies that despite seeming to promote social connections actually have the opposite effect (e.g. Facebook #socialXminus). That said, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for it to go viral! Anyway, let’s consider the cases of Hotels, Hostels and AirBnB.

    Hotels DO NOT foster a sense of community

    In a hotel you are, by definition, crammed in with all the other guests, many of whom you wouldn’t want to get stuck talking to for very long, if you could possibly avoid it. For these reasons, and others, the average guest is likely to hurry by in any given corridor, do their best to avert their gaze while stuck in a lift with you and carry on with their business with as little actual direct communication as possible. Sure, there’s the occasional exchange of pleasantries, but rarely do these result in what might be described as a meaningful social interaction.

    Hostels DO foster a sense of community

    Backpacker hostels across Africa, Asia and South America are a completely different offering. With everyone brought together by relative poverty compared to other visitors to the country who can actually afford to stay for an extended period in a hotel, the banter tends to be lively and all-inclusive. (That their relative poverty is positively lavish by the standards of most local people’s annual income is another matter for another day.) The point is: the usual sharp invisible borders wordlessly drawn between people from different levels of socioeconomic status in the developed world become blurred when you’re all bunk-bedded up in a 16-man & -woman dorm at the mercy of other people’s common decency regarding night-time emanations of light, sound and odour, breaking down many of the usual social barriers as a direct result.

    I’ve done a lot of traveling in my time, doing my best to stray from Lonely Planet recommendations wherever possible, in an effort to maximise my interactions with locals and the more intrepid adventurers. When I’ve been lucky enough to be put up in nice hotels by my bigger clients I try to wear the comfort of the facilities and the obsequiousness of the staff lightly. Don’t get used to it, I tell myself, focusing instead on directing my attention to how my fellow guests interact with those they encounter.

    I very much subscribe to the idea that you can glean much more about what a person’s really like from observing their interactions with others, rather than relying just on how they comport themselves with you. I’ve noticed that those who take the time to be polite and friendly to all, even those employed to serve them, are not as common as they once were.

    Comparing the incidence of positive social connection experiences in backpackers’ hostels to a wide variety of hotels, from one star holes right up to the full five star luxuriance, the backpacker hostels win hands down in the pro-social stakes. So I would say that, in my humble opinion, if I had to choose which of the two is a force building a sense of social connectedness (#socialXplus) and which ultimately reduces a person’s sense of social connectedness (#socialXminus), the categories would have to be:

    BackpackerHostels #socialXplus
    Hotels #socialXminus

    Then along came AirBnB, dutifully disrupting (as all good tech firms are wont to do) the whole traditional approach to finding a place to lay your weary head. And it is much more #socialXplus than any of its recent predecessors. Not only does the traveler get to meet a local who is incentivised by the ratings system to be helpful and friendly and do their best to provide the basics, but you become physically embedded in the local community. You see things that a relatively isolated hotel or hostel dweller would never see. As you’ll more often than not just be given the keys and told to leave your keys on the side on your way out, you usually have no choice but to ask local people for help and advice. Which is a good thing, by the way. Let me give you an example…

    I’m in Copenhagen as I type, staying in an AirBnB, tapping this into my laptop with the rare September sun streaming through the window and a swirling wind violently whipping the leaves of the plants on the balcony in time with the drum ‘n’ bass beats streaming from my laptop (Goldie, Strictly Jungle, 1995 – in case you’re curious). Earlier today, I had to ask three people where the nearest cash machine was until I finally tracked it down. And I also ended up asking a woman in the supermarket whether the carton I had in my hand was milk (because late last night, starving hungry, I ended up having a very sickly bowl of cereal because I’d accidentally bought a carton that looked very much like milk, but was in fact full cream!). My point is, as much as I wasn’t relishing the prospect of having to rely on the kindness of others to get what I needed doing done, it was ultimately great to have had some interactions with local people. I felt buoyed each time and it made me feel more at home as a stranger in a foreign country.

    These are minor moments of #socialXplus but ones that are worth mentioning all the same. The main boost this trip is giving for my sense of social connectedness (#socialX) is that I’m here to give a lecture as an excuse to spend time with two neuroscience buddies from my PhD days who are based here in Denmark. AirBnB quite literally made the trip financially viable, whereas if I’d had to stay in hotels I’d have flown in and out with one overnight stay, as the hotels in Copenhagen are outrageously expensive!

    There are also important #socialXplus opportunities on the other side of the equation. My host this time is staying at her boyfriend’s place so her interaction with me has been minimal. But the last time I stayed the night in an AirBnB it was on the outskirts of Bristol and the circumstances of my host were very different. We were in her spare room and it quickly became apparent that she often forged friendships with guests that she “clicked” with. She was a bouncy, vivacious, 45-year-old, full of West Country hospitality, enthusiasm and charm. She immediately invited us to have a cup of tea and join her on the sofa to watch the tennis (Wimbledon was on). Later that night my girlfriend came back to our AirBnB at midnight (while I continued on at the party hosted by another bunch of old university friends) and they ended up having an hour-long chat over a glass of wine. In the morning we tiptoed down to the kitchen / lounge to find the patio doors had been pulled back to reveal a beautifully-kept, wide, lush garden complete with pond, rock garden and seating area. She was up a ladder trimming the hedge in glorious sunshine, but immediately beckoned us to sit down and have some lemonade. She made us feel very welcome and all parties benefited from the social intimacy that the arrangement evoked.

    It is for these reasons that I offer AirBnB as a technology company that is a clear and unequivocal source of #socialXplus … helping humans to form social connections, helping them feel embedded in a community. And by bolstering their sense of being socially connected, albeit briefly, it should reduce their feelings of social isolation which might otherwise have increased their chances of getting cancer, cardiovascular disease, psychosis and depression according to a series of peer-reviewed scientific articles that have been accumulating in the literature since 1988.

    In addition to these monthly blogs, I tweet interesting brain articles (@drjacklewis), do a regular science podcast with the divine Lliana Bird (Geek Chic’s Weird Science) and am on the verge of launching a brand new YouTube channel where I take people in Virtual Reality adventures….

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  • SOS Soapbox Specials

    The tradition of exercising freedom of speech down at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park dates from 1196 when Tyburn Gallows were first erected nearby. Those condemned to hang from the neck until dead would be given the opportunity to speak to the gathered crowd before they met their maker. In 1872 this tradition was officially sanctioned by an act of parliament and of the hundreds of sites where speakers could get up on a soapbox and speak their minds freely, only Speakers’ Corner now remains.

    A couple of months ago I followed in the footsteps of Karl Marx and George Orwell by trying to start a revolution down at Speakers’ Corner. I talked about what I discovered when digging around in the neuroscience literature to find research that might illuminate the root causes of the stereotypical excesses of human behaviour branded as The Seven Deadly Sins (#SciOfSin). I used this evidence to motivate a different way of thinking about what these seven sub-types of anti-social behaviour does to our social circles, our health and our wellbeing.

    Ever since I’ve been loading up a 5-6 min excerpt each week of my hour-long speech. It’s a bit rambling as I hadn’t planned exactly what I was going to say and there are quite a few interruptions from a trio of hecklers, but my hope is that this all makes it feel more authentic and akin to what Speakers’ Corner is all about …

    Part One – Roll up, Roll up

    Part Two – The Seven Deadly Sins (Queen of Pride Rules Over Them All)

    Part Three – Brain Areas implicated in Wrath and Envy

    Part Four – Greed (The Root Of All Evil?)

    Part Five – Lust

    Part Six – The Trouble With Internet Porn

    Part Se7ev – Gluttony I

    Part Eight – Gluttony II

    Part Nine – Watch This Space

    Part Ten – Watch This Space

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  • The Science Of Sin

    This month’s blog is dedicated to a major milestone in my life.

    My first ever solo effort as an author hit the bookshops across the UK on 12th July

    It has it’s own dedicated site, so you can find all about it here: www.sciofsin.com

     

    A few days later, on 17th July, I did a sell out gig at Bart’s Pathology Museum (between St Paul’s Cathedral and Smithfield’s Market). I was delighted to find that 2 clergymen had trekked all the way from west London to hear what I had to say.

    The event was hosted by Carla Valentine – with whom I’d worked last year on a Vampire Special of my Geek Chic’s Weird Science podcast recorded live at Soho Theatre – and who insisted that we pose for this: my favourite photo ever…

    The Priest, The Mortician and the Neuroscientist

     

     

     

     

     

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  • Pregnancy Brain

    Over the past few years I’ve been working with ITV Global. It all started a couple of years back when I was invited to give my Sort Your Brain Out and Neuroscience of Negotiation talks for various members of their senior leadership team, both domestically and worldwide. This year and last the focus shifted to my Science of Creativity talk which I gave for their 100+ leaders across the full breadth of the organisation over the course of six live events. After one of these speaking engagements I was approached by an audience member who’d had a question on her mind since falling pregnant shortly after one of the talks I’d given previously (nothing to do with me!). She had noticed that her usually exceptional memory had gradually eroded as the pregnancy progressed. The burning question was: is the phenomenon of ‘pregnancy brain’ fact or fiction and, more to the point, was there any hope of her getting her previously brilliant memory back again? Had she asked me this question a year earlier I would have had to admit that science hadn’t yet addressed the question properly. As it happens her timing was excellent – a brain imaging study had just been published that might just provide the answer she was hoping for. I promised I’d write a blog about it, so here it is…

    The groundbreaking study by lead author Elseline Hoekzema and colleagues at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and Leiden University was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. They used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to measure the key changes that take place in the female brain as a result of pregnancy. They found that the grey matter consistently shrinks in brain areas commonly associated with social cognition and the greater the degree of volume reduction in these areas, the deeper the mother-child bond. The brain areas in question included in the Superior Temporal Sulcus (STS) and Inferior Frontal Gyrus (IFG) on the outward-facing surface of the left and right hemisphere, and the Precuneus and medial Prefrontal Cortex (mPFC) of the inward-facing surface where left and right hemispheres meet in the middle. Far from reflecting a withering away of brain areas under assault from the tsunami of hormones that regulate gestation (mothers are exposed to progesterone levels over ten times greater than the highest levels of the normal menstrual cycle and more oestrogen during pregnancy than the rest of their lives put together) the changes actually reflect adaptations specialising the brain for maternal attachment.

    Volume reductions were also observed in the hippocampus which could explain the degradation of memory that many women experience during and just after pregnancy. While memory wasn’t rigorously tested (they did a couple of tests but only found a trend towards memory loss) in this particular study, new mothers may take comfort from the observation that while the brain areas involved in social cognition remained two years after completion of the pregnancy, the volume of the left hippocampus had partially recovered (in 11 of the 25 mothers who had not fallen pregnant again). Assuming that the hippocampal volume continues to increase at the same rate, it would fall back into the normal range by around five years after the completion of pregnancy. Given the vital importance of the hippocampus for memory and navigation this seems to be a very promising result.

    This study used MRI to scan the brains of 50 women, of which 25 later fell pregnant for the first time. All were re-scanned after the babies were born, or after a similar period of time had elapsed for those who hadn’t fallen pregnant, so that brain structure could be compared before and after. Those women who did not fall pregnant served as the controls in which no significant structural changes were observed. Changes in brain tissue volume were only observed in those women who did fall pregnant confirming that pregnancy was the likely cause of the changes. They also performed an fMRI study looking for brain areas that were more strongly activated by pictures of each mother’s own baby compared to photos of other people’s babies. As there was considerable overlap between the brain areas more strongly activated by the mother’s own baby and those in which the brain volume reductions occurred, it seems likely that it reflects a process of specialisation for maternal attachment rather than collateral damage.  As these areas are commonly associated with the capacity for Theory of Mind, i.e. the ability to see the world from another’s perspective, these changes presumably reflect a tailoring of the mother’s brain to help them better anticipate the needs of their child.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I regularly tweet (@drjacklewis) interesting articles about recent breakthroughs in brain science and do a fortnightly Geek Chic’s Weird Science podcast on strange and wonderful stories from the world of science. Season 2 of my television series Secrets of the Brain starts on Insight TV later this month… so if you are in the UK or Ireland have Sky television you might consider setting your box to record the series on HD channel 564 and if you are elsewhere in Europe you will find it on other satellite/cable providers (check which channel it’s on in your country here). If it’s not available on your TV you can also stream it online via www.insight.tv

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  • The Future of Deep Brain Stimulation

    Ed Boyden is a professor at the Massachusett’s Institute of Technology who leads the Synthetic Neurobiology group. He’s credited with important contributions towards the revolutionary field of optogenetics. Essentially, it involves a bunch of molecular tools that make specific groups of neurons switch-on-and-offable simply by shining a light on them. This incredible innovation has given neuroscientists unprecedented level of precision in controlling the activity of different types of neuron in experiments trying to unpick the brain’s mind-bogglingly complex circuitry.

    It seems that he and his research team may well have done it again. They have developed another potentially incredibly powerful innovation that could fundamentally change how we approach Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS). This new approach is called Temporal Interference Stimulation (TIS) and the breakthrough it offers is enabling deep brain structures to stimulated without having to cut through the skull and actually insert electrodes into the brain.

    The DBS approaches currently used in humans involve passing electrodes through holes in the skull all the way down to deep brain areas in order to deliver pulses of electrical stimulation at the desired location. This has become a relatively routine medical intervention that fundamentally improves quality of life for thousands of people suffering from a range of brain illnesses all over the world. It has proven effective in a variety of chronically-debilitating diseases including Parkinson’s Disease, Major Depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder helping to circumvent common problems whereby patients either don’t get any improvement from their medications, or do at first but then the drugs stop working after a period of time.

    DBS therapy is most striking in people with Parkinson’s patients. Gradual death of the dopamine neurons that play an important role in initiating voluntary movements is the root cause of Parkinson’s disease. Dopamine-boosting agents often help with their movement difficulties but the benefits do not usually last forever. The invention of NICE-approved DBS therapy has been a lifesaver for many thousands of people. By applying an electrical current to either the thalamus, globus pallidus or subthalamic nuclei, limb movements can be controlled as normal. Their distinctive seemingly hesitant, shuffling walking style can be replaced with a normal, confident striding gait at the flick of a switch.

    The surgically-implanted electrodes often yield remarkable improvements in their symptoms, but having to cut holes in people’s skulls and physically implant wires in their brains is fraught with risks and potential complications. TIS, at some point in the future, could offer the same benefits but without the need to put any man-made objects inside the brain.

    We’ve had technologies that are capable of influencing brain activity from the skull surface for many years. Both Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tcDCS), which sends electrical currents across the skull, and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which produces transient magnetic fields that extend across the skull, are both able to influence brain activity without the need for invasive surgery. But tcDCS and TMS are unable to influence areas deep inside the brain with any precision, they can only modulate brain activity at the surface. With TIS, all that it set to change as the technology progresses from experiments with mice, through larger and larger mammals, until it is eventually (hopefully) proven to be safe and effective in humans.

    As with all brilliant scientific solutions, TIS is elegant in its simplicity. A high frequency electrical current has no effect on brain tissue. At lower frequencies electrical currents can disrupt the usual flow of information in whatever brain tissue it is passed through. Here’s the clever bit. By applying two different sources of high frequency electrical current, at carefully separated positions on the scalp surface, where the two currents overlap sufficiently to cause interference in a way that reduces the frequency of the combined electrical signal it’s possible to alter how the brain tissue functions. Every other region that the electric currents pass through on the way down to the target location is unaffected – only where the beams cross.

    The team’s recent paper, published in the journal Cell (free to download!), describes how this technique was used to selectively stimulate the mouse hippocampus, deep inside the temporal lobes, from the top of the skull. While reaching down to the human basal ganglia from the skull surface is a much greater challenge – penetrating to a much greater depth, across a much thicker skull – this proof of principle makes the dream of deep brain stimulation without surgery seem a realistic prospect in the not too distant future.

    In addition to these monthly blogs, you can follow me on Twitter (@drjacklewis) where I post articles on breakthroughs in brain science and related topics. I also do a fortnightly science podcast with the lovely Lliana Bird. I also present a TV series called Secrets of the Brain on Insight TV. You can watch series 1 on Sky channel 564 (It’s on most nights!), or you can stream it here. Series 2 is out in Autumn 2017…

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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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  • 2016 Showreel

    In my 8 years of presenting / contributing as an expert to TV shows I’ve appeared on every British terrestrial television channel and half a dozen or so international cable and satellite channels. My most recent series Secrets of the Brain is available to be streamed for free from anywhere in the world on the dedicated ultra high definition digital channel insight.tv (also on sky channel 279 in the UK). It’s without a shadow of a doubt the best presenting work I’ve done so far and it even got shortlisted for an AIB award.

    Here’s my brand new showreel dedicated entirely to SotB.

    Hope you like it…

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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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