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Behavioral Science, In the News, Medicine and Society, Pregnancy, Public Health

Walking on sunshine: How to celebrate summer safely

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Normally, I spend the Fourth of July on the shores of a Wisconsin lake, getting eaten alive by mosquitos, burning to a bright shade of pink, lighting sparklers and eating potato salad that has sat in the sun for hours. Heaps of fun, but also plenty of opportunities to fall ill.

This year, I’ve been barred from that fun trip by my oh-so-practical doc, who thinks unnecessary travel isn’t the smartest option for someone who is eight-months pregnant. Instead, I’ll have to be satisfied with reading a Washington Post article, published earlier this week, about all the summer health hazards I’m avoiding by celebrating the holiday in my coastal California home.

First is athlete’s foot, a fungus that “lingers on warm, wet surfaces such as poolside pavement and the floors of locker rooms and public showers” that produces an oozing pus. Or its relative, a toenail fungus that leads to yellow, thickened nails. And I thought a big belly was a bit of bother.

There’s also coxsackie virus, known for causing hand, foot and mouth disease, which thrives in kids’ wading pools courtesy of the occasional leaky diaper. The virus usually causes blisters; in rare cases it can lead to heart failure, says Stanford pediatrics professor Bonnie Maldonado, MD. Note to self: Keep baby out of unchlorinated kiddie pools.

We’re just getting warmed up here. There’s the summertime regulars of food poisoning, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. So yeah, that potato salad, while still yummy, probably isn’t a good idea, nor is the all-afternoon exposure to 95-plus degrees.

Don’t forget swimmer’s ear, an infection of the ear canal that, according to otolaryngologist Richard Rosenfeld, MD, from New York can “really, really, really hurt and ruin a vacation.” And a walk in the woods can quickly yield a ravaging rash from poison ivy or oak.

Throw in insect-borne plagues like West Nile and Lyme disease and gee, I guess my front porch isn’t looking so bad after all.

Previously: As summer heats up, take steps to protect your skin, This summer’s Stanford Medicine magazine shows some skin and Stanford nutrition expert offers tips for a healthy and happy Fourth of July
Photo by Jordan Richmond

Behavioral Science, Health and Fitness, Mental Health, Public Health, Research, Stanford News

Exposure to nature helps quash depression – so enjoy the great outdoors!

Exposure to nature helps quash depression - so enjoy the great outdoors!


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Walking is good for your health. But walking somewhere natural is even better, according to a new Stanford-led study.

Study participants who walked in a natural area for 90 minutes showed less activity in a brain region associated with depression than those who walked through a city or other urban area, a Stanford News story states. From the piece:

“These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world,” said co-author Gretchen Daily, the Bing Professor in Environmental Science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “Our findings can help inform the growing movement worldwide to make cities more livable, and to make nature more accessible to all who live in them.”

Even further, the research supports — but does not prove — a link between urbanization and growing rates of mental illness, said co-author James Gross, PhD, a professor of psychology.

The researchers had one group of participants walk in a grassland with oak trees and shrubs. The other group walked along a traffic-clogged four-lane road. They then measured heart and respiration rates, performed brain scans and had the participants answer a series of questions. The results showed that:

Neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region active during rumination – repetitive thought focused on negative emotions – decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment.

Evidence that supports the knowledge you’ve had since grade school: The outdoors really can make you feel better.

Previously: To get your creative juices flowing, start movingA look at the effects of city living on mental health and Out-of-office autoreply: Reaping the benefits of nature
Photo by Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Behavioral Science, Global Health, In the News, Public Health, Research, Sleep, Technology

Electricity access shortens sleep, study shows

Electricity access shortens sleep, study shows

Radium_Dial_UVGrowing up, my engineer father always told me to move my flowery glow-in-the-dark clock farther from my bedside. “You’re nuts, Dad,” I would respond, equating his concern with his conviction that he was dropped off by aliens in the New Mexican desert in 1947.

But now it turns out he may have had a point (although I’m still quite sure he came from a hospital in Pennsylvania, not a spaceship).

A new study published in the Journal of Biological Rhythms has shown that access to artificial light at night has shortened the amount of time we sleep each night. A recent University of Washington release describes the study:

The researchers compared two traditionally hunter-gatherer communities (in Argentina) that have almost identical ethnic and sociocultural backgrounds, but differ in one key aspect – access to electricity…

In their usual daily routines, the community with electricity slept about an hour less than their counterparts with no electricity. These shorter nights were mostly due to people who had the option to turn on lights and go to bed later, the researchers found. Both communities slept longer in the winter and for fewer hours in the summer.

This is the first study to examine differences in communities, rather than relying on artifically manipulating light in a laboratory.

“In a way, this study presents a proxy of what happened to humanity as we moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture and eventually to our industrialized society,” said lead author Horacio de la Iglesia, a University of Washington biology professor. “All the effects we found are probably an underestimation of what we would see in highly industrialized societies where our access to electricity has tremendously disrupted our sleep.”

So douse those lights, turn off the TV, push back your glowing clock, and embrace the dark — with a nice, long snooze.

Previously: New recommendation: Adults need at least 7 hours of sleep each nightMobile devices at bedtime? Sleep experts weigh in and Can adjusting your mobile device’s brightness help promote better sleep?
Via Medical News Today
Photo by Arma95

Behavioral Science, Events, Mental Health, Research, Videos

Stanford bioengineer uses his experience in Iraq to improve research of TBI and PTSD

Stanford bioengineer uses his experience in Iraq to improve research of TBI and PTSD

777423808In 2012, President Obama issued an Executive Order calling for better prevention, diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions. Third-year doctoral student Russell Toll is one of many who is doing research in these areas, and he brings a unique perspective to his work: He’s both a bioengineer and an Army combat veteran.

In 2006, Toll was in charge of a combined tank and infantry platoon stationed in the Diyala River Valley, about an hour northeast from Baghdad, Iraq.

His unit deployed with 14 tanks; they came back with four. Within 15 months, 28 men in his batallion were killed and 132 were severely wounded. A third of his men earned the Purple Heart and his unit — the 1-12 CAV in the 1st Cavalry Division — earned the Valorous Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism.

Now, Toll is working with his graduate advisor, Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, to identify biomarkers associated with TBI and PTSD. Toll and Etkin will discuss their work at the West Coast preview of the film “Searching for Home: Coming Back from War” next Saturday, June 20, at Stanford’s Cubberley Auditorium.

Recently, I spoke with Toll to learn more about his experience in Iraq and his research.

How did your experience in Iraq inform your understanding of PTSD?

As a platoon leader, all of your thoughts and efforts are focused on keeping your unit safe and getting them home. Only after you get home and decompress do you realize how much [weight] you were carrying.

This is a common experience for many soldiers and people that have lived through a traumatic experience.

At what point in your military career did you become interested in bioengineering and research on TBI and PTSD?

The pivotal point was in 2009 when I visited Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center] to check in on my men. The care they received at the center was excellent, but some of the equipment and technology that was being used to diagnose and treat them seemed like it hadn’t changed since Vietnam.

When I returned to my hotel room at night, I found myself drawing up ways we could address this problem on the backs of napkins. I have a bachelors degree in systems engineering from West Point, and I decided to apply these skills as a graduate student in bioengineering.

What was it like to come to Stanford after spending 15 months in Iraq?

It was a stark transition from the Army to Stanford; I felt like I had just climbed off the tank and stepped straight into systems biology. It sounds funny, but in a way I was able to apply my military training to my graduate studies: I developed cooperative relationships with the “indigenous experts” so I could get help from my classmates. As evidenced by my friends, I’m good at surrounding myself with excellent people. Their tutoring, coaching and friendship — especially that of Shrivats Iyer — was a major reason I was able to make it this far.

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Behavioral Science, Ethics, Events, Medicine and Society, Mental Health

Anger: The most evil emotion or a natural impulse?

Anger: The most evil emotion or a natural impulse?

5846841745_f2f620c5d3Anger isn’t good for your health. It spikes your heart rate, exacerbating heart conditions and anxiety. It leaves an ugly residue, a sensation of unease and aggression and it can lead to violence against others or oneself.

But in the west, we have an uneasy relationship with this powerful emotion, said Owen Flanagan, PhD, co-director of the Center of Comparative Philosophy at Duke University and speaker at the annual Meng-Wu lecture hosted by the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education last week.

In the United States and Europe, some anger is considered justified, even necessary for healing after one is wronged, Flanagan said. It’s natural, just a part of our constitution. An appropriate amount of anger is expected, a sign that you care. Flipping out because your barrista took too long making your latte? Probably not okay. But yelling at a driver who rear-ended you while texting? Certainly.

Not in Asia, Flanagan said. There, in accordance with Buddhist traditions, anger is right up there with hatred as the worst emotion, something that should be eliminated as soon as it arises.

Flanagan said he and other academic colleagues posed a question to the Dalai Llama several years ago: If you find yourself in a public place with a very bad person, like Hitler, before the atrocities have started, what should you do? Westerners would say anger was AOK, as was perhaps even murder. After conferring with his colleagues, the Dalai Llama said yes, murdering Hitler would be justified to prevent a very bad karmic causal chain. But anger? Absolutely not.

One could argue that even Hitler’s behavior was a byproduct of his genes, his upbringing, the surrounding society, Flanagan told the audience.

Flanagan said he still hasn’t figured out his own views toward anger. “Anger is a destructive emotion, but it might be a necessary emotion. I’m still not sure about that.”

But in the U.S., we don’t always live in accordance with our own traditions, Flanagan said. “We give ourselves sloppy permissions all over the place to be very angry people. That’s something that’s just not good.”

To counter anger, Flanagan offers several tips, drawn from both western and eastern traditions. First, embrace an emotion that is incompatible with anger, such as gratitude. Or reflect on your own insignificance and the transitory nature of the harm: This too will pass. “Astronomy is a good antidote to taking yourself too seriously,” Flanagan said.

In a longer term, Seneca suggests that it helps to “live among people who teach the children that anger is always bad.”

But is it even possible to completely eliminate anger? Some argue no, even babies express a form of frustration or discontent that could be a sign of inner anger. Or, we could all be conditioned by society, learning to be angry as soon as we’re born.

Previously: Bright lights breed stronger emotions, study finds, Is it possible to control one’s emotions? and Study suggests emotions may trump mind in matters of self-control while meditating
Photo by katmary

Behavioral Science, Imaging, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Stanford researchers tie unexpected brain structures to creativity – and to stifling it

Stanford researchers tie unexpected brain structures to creativity - and to stifling it

EinsteinHow often does the accountant turn out to be the life of the party? How often do the Nike sneakers, rather than the Armani suits, call the shots? Yet that may be the case when it comes to – of all things! – creativity.

As I wrote in this news release about an imaging study just published in Scientific Reports:

[Stanford scientists] have found a surprising link between creative problem-solving and heightened activity in the cerebellum, a structure located in the back of the brain and more typically thought of as the body’s movement-coordination center… The cerebellum, traditionally viewed as the brain’s practice-makes-perfect, movement-control center, hasn’t been previously recognized as critical to creativity.

That’s putting it mildly. And that’s not the only bizarre outcome of the study, whose findings also suggest that shifting the brain’s higher-level, executive-control centers into higher gear impairs, rather than enhances, creativity.

When I interviewed neuroscientist Allan Reiss, MD, the study’s senior author, about the research, he told me:

We found that activation of the brain’s executive-control centers – the parts of the brain that enable you to plan, organize and manage your activities – is negatively associated with creative task performance.

Creativity is one of the most valuable human attributes, as well as one of the hardest to measure. Tying it to activity in particular brain structures in a living, thinking human brain is a brainteaser in itself.

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Behavioral Science, Health and Fitness, Obesity, Public Health, Sleep

How insufficient sleep can lead to weight gain

How insufficient sleep can lead to weight gain

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I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who hates sleep and can’t wait to get less of it. Yet, even though most people want more sleep and know it’s important for their health, few people get as much shut-eye as they need. If you’re one of the many who needs a bit more motivation to get to bed earlier, a recent BeWell@Stanford article on how sleep can affect your weight may do the trick.

In the Q&A, sleep expert Emmanuel Mignot, MD, PhD, director of the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, explains why and how insufficient sleep can increase your risk of weight gain:

It is very clear that if you’re not sleeping enough, you’re putting yourself at risk for increasing your weight.  If you sleep less than six hours a night, you’re likely to have a higher BMI (body mass index). Longitudinal data — and the evidence is quite strong — shows that if you sleep more over time, you’ll lower your BMI, which correlates with weight reduction.

In the first centuries of human life on earth, if humans weren’t sleeping they were probably looking for food or fleeing a predator. Not sleeping enough was a sign that we were in danger or that we were under stress. When we are sleep deprived, we feel hungry. Data indicates that if you sleep less, you eat more, and it disrupts your hormones. This problem is magnified in today’s world because food is too available!

Mignot also discusses the top reasons why people sleep so little, the importance of naps, and how being sleep-deprived skews our perception of doing and performing well. “[W]e have to make sure we don’t burn the candle at both ends, Mignot said. “Sleeping brings creativity, productivity and the ability to perform at a higher level.”

The piece is a quick, and informative, read.

Previously: Exploring the history and study of sleep with Stanford’s William Dement“Father of Sleep Medicine” talks with CNN about what happens when we don’t sleep wellStanford doc gives teens a crash course on the dangers of sleep deprivation, Narcoleptic Chihuahua joins Stanford sleep researcher’s family and More evidence linking sleep deprivation and obesity
Photo by Goodiez

Behavioral Science, In the News, Mental Health, Public Health, Research

Green roofs are not just good for the environment, they boost productivity, study shows

Green roofs are not just good for the environment, they boost productivity, study shows

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Boosting productivity can be as simple as looking at a grassy roof for just forty seconds, conclude researchers at the University of Melbourne. It’s been shown that contact with nature can relieve stress and improve concentration and mood, but this is one of the first studies to see if novel urban manifestations of greenery can have the same effect.

The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology and led by Kate Lee of Melbourne’s Green Infrastructure Research Group, involved giving students a mindless computer task to do in a city office building with a brief break spent looking at a picture of either a lush green roof or bare concrete roof. Those who looked at the green one made significantly fewer mistakes and showed better concentration in the second half of the task. The study was based on the idea of “attention restoration” through microbreaks lasting under a minute, which happen spontaneously throughout the work day.

Lee is quoted in a press release:

We know that green roofs are great for the environment, but now we can say that they boost attention too. Imagine the impact that has for thousands of employees working in nearby offices… It’s really important to have micro-breaks. It’s something that a lot of us do naturally when we’re stressed or mentally fatigued. There’s a reason you look out the window and seek nature, it can help you concentrate on your work and to maintain performance across the workday.

Certainly this study has implications for workplace well-being and adds extra impetus to continue greening our cities. City planners around the world are switching on to these benefits of green roofs and we hope the future of our cities will be a very green one.

She and her team next plan to see if city greening makes people more helpful and creative, as well as productive.

Previously: Nature is good for you, right? and Out of office auto-reply: Reaping the benefits of nature
Photo by Jeremy Reding

Behavioral Science, Complementary Medicine, Events, Medical Education, Stanford News

Advice for young docs from psychiatrist David Spiegel: Find a mentor and pursue your passion

Spiegel in office - smallThe takeaway from Stanford David Spiegel‘s recent lunchtime discussion, part of the Psychiatry and Behavioral Science Grand Rounds, was simple: You can’t make it on your own; accept, welcome and offer assistance. To succeed as an academic psychiatrist, it isn’t necessary to come from a line of psychiatrists, as Spiegel, MD, does, he said.

But junior physicians do need mentors, those who know the formal and informal rules of the system and who are willing to make time and lend a hand, a practice Spiegel attributed to his mentor, Irvin Yalom, emeritus professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

Spiegel said that early in his career, he would initially get discouraged when papers or grants would be rejected. Then, he came across a statistic that few hockey players make it out of their first year in the National Hockey League with all of their teeth. It was an “a-ha” moment for the second-generation psychiatrist (Spiegel’s parents were both psychiatrists). Despite hard work, even the best scientists encounter challenges and adversity.

Now, Spiegel is the Jack, Lulu and Sam Willson Professor and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. He directs the Stanford Center on Stress and Health and is also medical director for the Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine.

Spiegel offered additional advice to the 80-or-so people who gathered to hear him: Disregard convention and explore your interests. “You will do your best work if you’re doing something you’re passionate about,” he said.

Despite the prevalence of psychotherapy, and then of community psychiatry, Spiegel said he stuck by his interest in hypnosis, despite its poor reputation. By conducting statistically sound studies, he developed a body of work demonstrating that hypnosis has real, replicable benefits. This work stood up to critical skeptics and helped secure his tenured position at Stanford, Spiegel said.

Stanford then, and now, has accepted work that expands the bounds of disciplines, as long as it stands up to scientific scrutiny, Spiegel said. “Do whatever the hell you want to do, but be scientific and empirical about it. If you can demonstrate it works, fine,” Spiegel said. He concluded with this parting phrase: “Data rocks!”

Previously: “Tranceformation:” David Spiegel on how hypnosis can change your brain’s perception of your body, Starting a new career in academic medicine? Here’s a bible for the bedside: The Academic Medicine Handbook, Exploring the science of hypnosis with Stanford’s David Spiegel and Stanford psychiatrist David Spiegel’s path west
Photo by L.A. Cicero

Behavioral Science, In the News, Mental Health, Neuroscience, Research, Science

Inside the brain of optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth

Inside the brain of optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth

brain-494152_1280Lighting the brain,” a recent New Yorker profile, offers insight into the brain of Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, the well-known innovator of both optogenetics and CLARITY. (Optogenetics is a genetic engineering feat that allows researchers to control neurons in living animals using light. CLARITY is a technique that makes individual neural connections visible.)

Deisseroth, readers of the article learn, is a guy who shows up to his leading scientific laboratory wearing jeans and a t-shirt and who doesn’t let a little fender bender tweak his mood.

Yes, he’s brilliant. His ability to instantly memorize information morphed into a “circus act” of sorts when he was in elementary school. He began medical school at age 20. But, he’s also driven and hard working. When optogenetics encountered early resistance and doubt after its initial publication in 2005, Deisseroth “began working furiously,” the article states. Into work before 6 a.m., Deisseroth slaved over his brainchild often until 1 a.m., his wife, Michelle Monje, MD, PhD, reported.

It took a few more papers — and demonstrations of the applicability of optogenetics to examine real diseases — for the scientific community to catch on. But then, like a contagion of scientific glee, optogenetics rocked the neuroscience community.

Monje realized its popularity at a recent scientific conference:

“People were stopping us at the airport asking to take a picture with him, asking for autographs,” she said. “He can’t walk through the conference hall—there’s a mob. It’s like Beatlemania. I realized, I’m married to a Beatle. The nerdy Beatle.”

For more on the “nerdy Beatle,” and the science behind both optogenetics and CLARITY, check out the article for yourself. It’s well worth your brain power.

Previously: Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth awarded prestigious Albany Prize, Lightning strikes twice: Optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth’s newest technique renders tissues transparent, yet structurally intact and New York Times profiles Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth and his work in optogenetics
Image by Tumisu

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