RECENT POSTS

More Evidence That Growing Up Poor May Alter Key Brain Structures

Allan Ajifo/flickr

(Allan Ajifo/Flickr)

Poverty is bad for your brain.

That’s the basic takeaway from an emerging body of research suggesting that the distress associated with growing up poor can negatively influence brain development in many ways, and in certain cases might also lead to emotional and mental health problems, like depression.

The latest study, led by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, found that poverty in early childhood may influence the development of important connections between parts of the brain that are critical for effective regulation of emotions.

The study, published in the Journal of American Psychiatry, adds “to the growing awareness of the immense public health crisis represented by the huge number of children growing up in poverty and the likely long-lasting impact this experience has on brain development and on negative mood and depression,” researchers report.

Continue reading

Deep? Or Pseudo-Profound B.S.? Psychologists Explore Why Some Can’t Tell

(Anynobody/Wikimedia Commons)

(Anynobody/Wikimedia Commons)

What do you think of the following sentences?

“The universe is the wisdom of objective external reality.”

“Experiential truth embraces the expansion of actions.”

“Death is only possible in intrinsic possibilities.”

Are they profound wisdom? Or are they bull?

If you thought they were profound, you might need your BS detector checked.

Created from the website wisdomofchopra.com, this “wisdom” was generated by randomly putting together words found in the tweets of Deepak Chopra, the physician and author.

Who is more likely to see such bull as profound? And why? These are the questions that motivated Gordon Pennycook, a psychology PhD student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and his colleagues to publish a paper this week called “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bulls—.” (They spelled out the full word, which academic psychology allows but the AP Stylebook we use does not.)

The researchers took quotes like those above and tested whether people could see pseudo-profound statements for what they were — bulls—. Their findings suggest that people with higher intelligence and better critical-thinking skills are likeliest to detect BS. And more than one-quarter of the population they studied were particularly prone to buying in to it — and to holding, shall we say, “alternative” beliefs on topics from medicine to magic.

At first, this may seem like — you know — bull, but Gordon Pennycook is a real person. (Yes, Pennycook is his real name, despite its similarity to “poppycock.”) And if you wonder whether studying susceptibility to BS is important, just consider the possible effects on everything from votes in next year’s election to purchases of purported cure-all supplements.

The paper, published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, is a remarkable study, not only in profane language — using the word bulls— about 200 times — but also in finally applying empirical analysis to the study of bull. Much has been written about it previously, but mostly just musings on the topic: “bulls— about bulls—,” Pennycook joked. Continue reading

State-Funded Lab At Harvard Medical Aims To Reinvent Drug Discovery

Jerry Lin and Sharon Wang at the not yet one-year-old Laboratory of Systems Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School. The two are studying the effects of cancer treatment drugs on the heart. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Jerry Lin and Sharon Wang at the not yet one-year-old Laboratory of Systems Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School. The two are studying the effects of cancer treatment drugs on the heart. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Jerry Lin makes a few adjustments on his microscope and grins.

“Wow, it’s beating,” Lin says as a white cell floating across an inky black background begins to pulse. “That’s cool.” A few colleagues, including Lin’s lab partner, Sharon Wang, murmur approvingly.

“We want to take a real-time video to look at the pattern of how cells beat over time,” Wang says, explaining this stage of the experiment.

Once Lin and Wang understand the morphology of these heart muscle cells, they’ll test how the cells respond to various cancer treatments.

“Later on, we can look at how that frequency of beating responds to different drugs,” Wang says.

The experiment is important, says lab director Peter Sorger, because heart problems can be a side effect of a drug that stops the spread of breast cancer.

“On the one hand, it’s a marvelous magic bullet,” Sorger says. “On the other hand, it does damage on its way in. So the purpose of these studies is to understand precisely why that happens.”

Sorger and his team at the Laboratory of Systems Pharmacology are focused on cancer and on analyzing the ways cancer drugs affect the whole body. They aim to reinvent the drug development process through this systems approach, by going much deeper than would scientists supervising a typical clinical trial and by establishing a new model of collaboration. Continue reading

UMass Medical School Sending Team To Fight Ebola In Liberia

Dr. Rick Sacra, a UMass Medical School faculty member who contracted the Ebola virus in Liberia, walks out of a media availability with Chancellor Michael Collins Sept. 4 in Worcester. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

Dr. Rick Sacra, a UMass Medical School faculty member who contracted the Ebola virus in Liberia, walks out of a media availability with Chancellor Michael Collins Sept. 4 in Worcester. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

UMass Medical School this week launches a formal effort to fight Ebola in Liberia.

The school is familiar with the West African nation. It leads a collaborative of institutions, including Boston Children’s Hospital, that has been sending faculty and staff to Liberia to train doctors and nurses since 2006. The school recently received a $7.5 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to send doctors and nurses to help care for Ebola patients and reopen health care facilities.

On Thursday, one faculty member from UMass Medical School and a doctor from Boston Children’s will head to Liberia to asses what’s needed for the months-long effort.

Chancellor Michael Collins says faculty members will be under 21-day voluntary quarantine when they return, but many are signing up for the work.

Continue reading

Study Raises Questions About Military Service Causing Chronic Suicidal Tendencies

A new study commissioned by the U.S. Army has found that the mental health of soldiers isn’t as different from civilians as the researchers previously thought.

Earlier this year, researchers said that soldiers, who were surveyed at different times during their Army careers, had higher rates of mental disorders before they enlisted than the rates of mental illness in the general population.

Continue reading

Brain Scientists Learn To Alter And Even Erase Memories

This optogenetic device uses light to activate specific brain cells. (Courtesy McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT)

This optogenetic device uses light to activate specific brain cells. (Courtesy McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT)

For 32 years, Leslie Ridlon worked in the military. For most of her career she was in army intelligence. Her job was to watch live video of fatal attacks to make sure the missions were successful.

“I had to memorize the details, and I have not got it out of my head, it stays there, the things I saw,” she says. “The beheading — I saw someone who got their head cut off — I can still see that.”

Leslie Ridlon retired from the military eight years ago, but she finds she cannot work because she suffers from severe PTSD. (Courtesy)

Leslie Ridlon retired from the military last year, but she finds she cannot work because she suffers from severe PTSD. (Courtesy)

Ridlon is now 49 and retired from the military last year, but she finds she cannot work because she suffers from severe post traumatic stress disorder. She has tried conventional therapy for PTSD, in which a patient is exposed repeatedly to a traumatic memory in a safe environment. The goal is to modify the disturbing memory. But she says that type of therapy doesn’t work for her.

“They tried to get me to remember things,” she says. “I had a soldier who died, got blown up by a mortar — he was torn into pieces. So they wanted me to bring that back. I needed to stop that. It was destroying me.”

She has concluded that some memories will never leave her. “Everything I could get rid of as far as memory I think I’ve already done it,” she says. “I think the deep ones that you suffer from, I don’t think anyone can take them away. I don’t believe anyone can. I think the ones I have now, they’re going to just stay there. I’m just going to have to manage them.”

But what if these traumatic memories could be altered or even erased permanently? Researchers say they are beginning to be able to do that — not just in animals, but in people as well.

Not long ago, scientists thought of memory as something inflexible, akin to a videotape of an event that could be recalled by hitting rewind and then play. But in recent decades, new technology has helped change the way we understand how memory works — and what we can do with it. Scientists can now manipulate memory in ways they hope will eventually lead to treatments for disorders ranging from depression to post-traumatic stress to Alzheimer’s disease.

“We now understand there are points in time when we can change memory, where we can create windows of opportunity that allows us to alter memories, and even erase specific memories,” says Marijn Kroes, a neuroscientist at New York University.
Continue reading

In Search Of ‘Computational Psychiatry:’ Why Is It A Hot New Field?

By Suzanne Jacobs
WBUR Intern

It’s around 10 a.m. on a weekday when I walk into a coffee shop that apparently doubles as the preferred study spot of every student on the Boston University campus. My instinct is to leave immediately and find a quieter place to caffeinate, but I’m not here for the coffee. I’m here for information — information on what I’m hearing is one of the hottest new trends in brain science.

Winding my way through tables of frazzled co-eds, I search every face for that “Are you who I’m looking for?” stare, but no one acknowledges me. So I step back out onto the sidewalk and wait. I’m early anyway.

About five minutes later, a young man who would have otherwise been indistinguishable from the crowd of students locks eyes with me from about 20 feet away. “That’s my guy,” I think to myself.

Lights of Ideas (Andrew Ostrovsky)

(Andrew Ostrovsky)

Minutes later, coffees in hand, we’re seated at a small back table, and I put my digital recorder down on it. “Is it okay if I record this?” I ask. He says that’s fine.

At this point, what I really want to do is grab him by the shoulders and yell, “What are you people doing? Let me into your world!” For weeks, I’ve been looking into this new field of research called computational psychiatry, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out what it is. More frustratingly, I can’t figure out why I can’t figure it out, despite a strong science background and hours of reading what little I could find about the topic on the Internet.

But I hold back, press the little red circle on my digital recorder and let the man speak.

In computational psychiatry, “What you try to do is come up with a toy world…,” he begins.

This all started a few weeks earlier when I was perusing the latest edition of Current Opinion in Neurobiology. Don’t ask me why I was perusing Current Opinion in Neurobiology — I don’t know. To avoid doing something else, probably.

One article caught my eye. It was titled “Computational approaches to psychiatry.” A longtime subscriber to the drugs-and-therapy stereotype of psychiatry, I found the idea of new “computational approaches” intriguing, so I read on. Continue reading

Summertime Blues: Pesticide-Laden Strawberries And Your Health

Pesticide spraying at a farm on the North Shore of Massachusetts. (Photo: Alexandra Morris)

Pesticide spraying at a farm on the North Shore of Massachusetts. (Photo: Alexandra Morris)

By Alexandra Morris

This weekend marks the start of the summer season, but I can’t help dwelling on the downside. Each year at this time, crowds from urban Boston descend on the farm next to my parents’ house on the North Shore in Mass. to pick their own strawberries – fresh, sweet, ripe…and coated with toxins.

While the farm staff warns visitors to wash the fruit before eating it, many choose to snack along the way (one group was caught sitting in the strawberry field with a can of “Reddi-Whip” in hand). After all, what’s the cost of a few unwashed strawberries?

Unfortunately, when it comes to our health, the cost may be fairly high.

Over the years, researchers have documented the bad effects of pesticide exposure on human health. Recently, though, and at a forum this week at Harvard, there’s been increased attention on the links between pesticides and neurodegenerative diseases, notably Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

In a study published earlier this year in the journal Neurology, researchers from UCLA identified the way in which certain pesticides can increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease. They also found that people with a common genetic variant are even more sensitive to these pesticides – they are two to five times more likely to develop Parkinson’s if exposed.

“Once you identify the toxicity of these things, getting rid of the bad pesticides…would be a goal, not just for the people that live in the area, but for the workers that use it,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Jeff Bronstein, a professor of neurology at UCLA.

In a separate report out of Rutgers University, published in JAMA Neurology, researchers found that exposure to the pesticide DDT may increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. In the study, researchers found that levels of DDE, the chemical compound that develops when DDT breaks down, were higher in the blood of Alzheimer’s patients compared to those without the disease.

And the effects go beyond the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Marc Weisskopf, an associate professor of environmental and occupational epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, who spoke at the Harvard forum, said there is evidence that pesticides contribute to a host of neurodevelopmental disorders as well, from ADHD and developmental disorders to lowered cognitive performance. Continue reading

A Surprising New View Of Flu: Rethinking The 1918 Pandemic

Giving treatment to influenza patient at the U.S. Naval Hospital. New Orleans, Louisiana, Circa 1918. (Navy Medicine/Flickr)

Giving treatment to influenza patient at the U.S. Naval Hospital. New
Orleans, Louisiana, Circa 1918. (Navy Medicine/Flickr)

By Richard Knox
Guest Contributor

Ever since 1918, the world has wondered why a novel flu virus touched off an explosive pandemic that killed as many as 50 million people – most of them healthy young adults — and whether it could happen again.

Flu researchers today report some surprising news: They say the 1918 virus was no super-bug. Instead, its deadliness had to do with how very different it was from the flu viruses circulating 25 or 30 years before, when the young adults of 1918 were first exposed to the flu.

Indeed, the new study says it’s that first childhood exposure that determines how people will fight off – or fall prey to – every other flu virus they will encounter in a lifetime.

That’s a very different way of looking at flu, both pandemics and regular seasonal outbreaks.

Much of the current emphasis is on the virus itself. Scientists around the world are doing controversial “gain-of-function” experiments – adding and subtracting pieces of genes from flu strains to see what mutations make some viruses so virulent.

Instead of focusing on flu virus itself, authors of a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences say scientists and public health experts should pay attention to the vulnerabilities of different age groups to any new flu virus – and how those immune gaps might be filled in by targeted vaccine strategies.

“Childhood exposure seems to give kick-ass immunity to that kind of flu virus for many, many decades,” says evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona, the paper’s lead author. Continue reading

On Perception (And Pancakes): How The Brain Keeps Vision Stable

By Alexandra Morris
CommonHealth Intern

You probably didn’t think Julia Roberts could teach you much about subtle, yet critical, brain functions.

But, it turns out, she can. Recall Roberts in her iconic film “Pretty Woman.” In one scene, she is eating a croissant. But as the camera pans back to her, the croissant turned into a pancake.

It’s likely that many of us missed that blooper, and now we know why. Scientists have discovered a brain mechanism that smooths our field of vision so that we don’t notice certain subtle visual changes — such as a croissant becoming a pancake in an otherwise identical scene.

In a paper published last month in Nature Neuroscience, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have identified a brain mechanism that helps to stabilize our field of vision. They call it, a “continuity field” — a process the brain uses to merge similar objects seen within a 15-second timeframe.

“It seems like a very odd thing the brain is doing that could make us less accurate,” said the study’s lead author, Jason Fischer, who is now a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. “But in fact there is this huge benefit to it — and that is stabilizing perception over time.”

To measure this process, researchers showed study participants an image with alternating light and dark bars, or “gratings,” at a random angle every five seconds. The participants were then asked to move a white bar to match the tilt of the grating that had been shown.

Here’s the video:

Researchers found that while the white bars generally aligned with the image, there were subtle differences that were biased toward the previous three or so images. These differences could be attributed to the continuity field.

Imagine, now, for example, you are driving down a highway in the pouring rain and you’re trying to read a road sign. The windshield wipers are moving; the raindrops are hitting your windshield. As you’re looking at the sign, you’re experiencing constant interruptions in your visual stream. In that case, the changes that the continuity field is causing us to miss are the raindrops and windshield wipers — you may even fail to notice them after a while. The continuity field, for the most part, is beneficial — it blocks the stuff we don’t want to see. Continue reading