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Behavioral Science, Complementary Medicine, Neuroscience, Videos

This is your brain on meditation

This is your brain on meditation

For years, friends have been telling me I should try meditation. I’m embarrassed to admit it’s mostly because of (how can I put this delicately?) a temper that flares when I’m anxious or stressed out. But, as it is for many people, it’s one of those things I haven’t gotten around to. This video by AsapSCIENCE, though, describing the things scientists have discovered about meditators has me thinking about it again.

Meditation is linked to a decreased anxiety and depression, and increased pain tolerance. Your brain tunes out the outer world during meditation, and on brain scans of meditators, scientists can see increased activity in default mode network – which is associated with better memory, goal setting, and self-awareness. The part of the brain that controls empathy has also been shown to be more pronounced in monks who are long-time meditators. From the video:

“[Meditation] also literally changes your brain waves, and we can measure these frequencies. Medidators have higher levels of alpha waves, which have been shown to reduce feelings of negative mood, tension, sadness and anger.”

Much like hitting the gym can grow your muscles and increase your overall health, it seems that meditation may be a way of working out your brain—with extra health benefits.”

Other demonstrated benefits include better heart rate variability and immune system function. I’m glossing over a lot of the information that’s packed into this entertaining little video, but if you’re curious, check out this less-than-three-minute video yourself.

Previously: Study shows benefits of breathing meditation among veterans with PTSDResearch brings meditation’s health benefits into focusUsing meditation to train the brainCan exercise and meditation prevent cold and flu? and How meditation can influence gene activity
Video by AsapSCIENCE

Mental Health, Neuroscience, Stanford News, Videos

Hope for the globby thing inside our skulls

Hope for the globby thing inside our skulls

While at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, neuroscientists Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD, and Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, had a webcast conversation with NPR correspondent Joe Palca as part of his series of conversations on brain science. During their conversation, Palca asked about the current state of treatment for mental health and neurodegenerative diseases (bad) and prospects for the future (better).

When asked the single most important thing people could do for their mental health, Etkin answered, “awareness”. He said people need to be aware of their mental health and know that help exists if they seek it out. Current treatments aren’t perfect, but they are better than no treatment at all.

They also discussed molecular tools for diagnosing degenerative diseases, and the goals of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute‘s Big Ideas in Neuroscience teams that the two co-lead to develop new diagnostics and treatments for mental health (Etkin) and neurodegenerative diseases (Wyss-Coray).

At the end, Palca summarized the wide-ranging conversation saying, “I think it’s a time of actually some hope. I feel quite positive that this globby thing that sits inside our skulls is being understood in enough detail to make some precise changes that can be helpful.”

Previously: Neurosciences get the limelight at DavosNeuroscientists dream big, come up with ideas for prosthetics, mental health, stroke and more

Mental Health, Neuroscience, Stroke

Neurosciences get the limelight at Davos

Neurosciences get the limelight at Davos

IMG_0887Four faculty from the Stanford Neurosciences Institute have been in Davos for the past few days attending the World Economic Forum along with world leaders and economic illuminati. They were invited to form a panel about the recently announced Big Ideas in Neuroscience, which is a novel way of bringing faculty together around health challenges like stroke, neurodegenerative disease and mental health conditions. If this approach is successful it could help ease the crippling economic and emotional costs of those diseases.

Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, emailed me from the conference that attendees seem to be very excited and focused on the sessions, with lines out the door of people waiting for seating. The entire panel included Etkin, who co-leads a mental health team, Marion Buckwalter, MD, PhD, who leads a stroke collaboration, and Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD, and Anne Brunet, PhD, who are both part of the neurodegenerative disease team.

Tomorrow at 6 a.m. Pacific Time both Etkin and Wyss-Coray will be webcast live in conversation with NPR correspondent Joe Palca. That webcast is available on the World Economic Forum website.

Previously: Neuroscientists dream big, come up with ideas for prosthetics, mental health, stroke and more, Stanford expert responds to questions about brain repair and the future of neuroscience

Imaging, Neuroscience, Research, Science, Stanford News

New insights into how the brain stays bright

New insights into how the brain stays bright

Neon brainAxel Brunger, PhD, professor and chair of Stanford’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Physioogy , and a team composed of several Stanford colleagues and UCSF scientists including Yifan Cheng, PhD, have moved neuroscience a step forward with a close-up inspection of a brain-wide nano-recycling operation.

A healthy adult brain accounts for about 2 percent of a healthy person’s weight, and it consumes about 20 percent of all the energy that person’s body uses. That’s a lot of sugar getting burned up in your head, and here’s why: Incessant chit-chat throughout the brain’s staggeringly complex circuitry. A single nerve cell (of the brain’s estimated 100 billion) may communicate directly with as many as a million others, with the median in the vicinity of 10,000.

To transmit signals to one another, nerve cells release specialized chemicals called neurotransmitters into small gaps called synapses that separate one nerve cell in a circuit from the next. The firing patterns of our synapses underwrite our consciousness, emotions and behavior. The simple act of tasting a doughnut requires millions of simultaneous and precise synaptic firing events throughout the brain and, in turn, precisely coordinated timing of neurotransmitter release.

You’d better believe these chemicals don’t just ooze out of nerve cells at random. Prior to their release, they’re sequestered within membrane-bound packets, or vesicles, inside the cells. Every time a nerve cell transmits a signal to the next one – which can be more than 100 times a second – hundreds of tiny chemical-packed vesicles approach the edge of the first nerve cell and fuse with its outer membrane, like a small bubble merging with a larger one surrounding it. At just the right time, numerous vesicles’ stored contents spill out into the synapse, to be quickly taken up by receptors dotting the nearby edge of the nerve cell on the synapse’s far side, where, like little electronic ones and zeroes in a computer circuit, they may either trigger or impede the firing of an impulse along that next nerve cell.

Each instance of bubble-like fusion – and this happens not only in neurotransmitter release but in hormone secretion and other processes throughout the body – is carefully managed by a complex of interconnecting proteins, collectively known as the SNARE complex. The molecular equivalent of a clamp, the SNARE complex guides the vesicle ever nearer to the nerve-cell’s surface and then, at just the right moment, squishes it up against the cell’s outer membrane. The vesicle bursts, spilling its contents into the synapse.

Myriad repetitions of this process typify the average day in the life of the average nerve cell. This requires not only a ton of energy (which I guess is where the doughnut comes in) but ultra-efficient recycling. The entire SNARE complex must be constantly disassembled, then reassembled. In a new study in Nature, Brunger and his associates snagged a set of near-atomic-scale snapshots of the SNARE complex as well as the molecular machinery that recycles its components, allowing them to make sophisticated guesses about how the whole thing works. (See the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s news release on the study here.)

This has been a long time coming. In fact, Brunger’s lab first determined the molecular structure of the SNARE complex, via X-ray crystallography, in 1998. The careful decades-long process of tracking down the SNARE complex’s components and their interactions won Stanford neuroscientist Tom Sudhof, MD, the 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine. But despite its immense importance, you probably haven’t heard much about it. Studies of molecular structures are in general opaque to lay readers, complicated systems such as the SNARE complex all the more so. The popular press pays attention to the awarding of the Nobel, but seldom to the long, towering staircase of incremental discoveries that was climbed to earn it.

Previously: Revealed: The likely role of Parkinson’s protein in the healthy brain, Step by step, Sudhof stalked the devil in the details, snagged a Nobel and But is it news? How the Nobel prize transformed “noteworthy” into “newsworthy”
Photo by Carolyn Speranza

Neuroscience, Research, Sports, Stanford News

Forces at work in concussions more complicated than previously thought, new Stanford study reveals

Forces at work in concussions more complicated than previously thought, new Stanford study reveals

640px-Hischool_football_sunsetThe college bowls of New Year’s Day are behind us, and many football fans are already looking forward to next month’s Super Bowl. But they’re also talking more about the traumatic head injuries that plague football players, which scientists and clinicians still don’t understand fully.

One Stanford team is measuring the physical forces that an athlete’s head undergoes in a much more detailed way than in past studies, using a specially-outfitted mouthguard that we wrote about last year. Just before Christmas, Stanford bioengineer David Camarillo, PhD, and his team published a paper in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering that provides a much more complete picture of head injuries among athletes.

Helmets used in football and other sports are only evaluated on how well they protect in three directions of movement: front/back, up/down, and left/right. But, as a press release from the university notes, researchers suspect that rotational accelerations (roll, pitch, yaw) play an important role in serious injuries.

The team customized a commercially available mouthguard to measure movement in all six directions, and they recorded 500 impacts on Stanford football players, local boxers and mixed martial arts athletes. Two of the impacts resulted in concussions. The researchers analyzed the impacts and found that using six degree-of-freedom data proved to be more predictive of injuries than the current three degree-of-freedom standard. They also found that one particular part of the brain is more likely involved in concussion injuries. The release details these findings:

The current work… has helped identify a brain structure that bears closer scrutiny for its potential role in concussion symptoms. While the two concussion impacts inflicted very different magnitude and directional forces on the head, computer models indicated that they both put strain on a particular part of the brain, the corpus callosum. Previous concussion studies have identified the corpus callosum as a potential injury site.

“One of the things the corpus callosum does is manage depth perception and visual judgment by communicating and integrating information from each eye across the left and right hemisphere of the brain,” said lead author Fidel Hernandez, a mechanical engineering graduate student in Camarillo’s lab. “If your eyes can’t communicate, your ability to perceive objects in three dimensions may be impaired and you may feel out of balance, which is a classic concussion symptom.”

At the beginning of this year, a new law went into effect in California limiting the time high school football players’ full-contact practice time to just two 90 minute sessions per week; the new law also bans out-of-season full-contact practice. Texas has had a similar law on the books since 2013. The laws indicate the growing concern over head injuries, and more accurate information from studies like Camarillo’s can help coaches and parents decide when a player needs to step off the field.

Beyond influencing possible changes to industry standards, another possible implications for Camarillo’s research is that it will allow coaches to remotely monitor impact forces that players undergo. Many players under-report impact injuries, something that complicates understanding the phenomena. Accurate measurements can help clarify the picture.

Previously: Mouthguard technology by Stanford bioengineers could improve concussion measurementStanford undergrad studies cellular effects of concussionsKids and concussions: What to keep in mindDeveloping a computer model to better diagnose brain damage, concussions and Study suggests football-related concussions caused by series of hits, not a single blow.
Photo by  Jacoplane

Neuroscience, Stanford News, Videos

A detailed look at latest advancements in treating brain tumors

A detailed look at latest advancements in treating brain tumors

Advancements in radiology and imaging combined with the increasing use of robotics and computers in neurosurgery have dramatically changed the way physicians treat brain tumors. Steven Chang, MD, director of the Stanford Neurogenetics Program and the Stanford Neuromolecular Innovation Program, offers an overview of these revolutionizing techniques in this Stanford Health Care video.

During the lecture, Change provides specific examples of how cutting-edge technologies and therapies have improved patient outcomes. One such technology is intraoperative MRI (iMRI), which allows surgeons to image the patient while on the operating room table to achieve a more complete removal of the brain tumor. He also addresses how radiosurgery can overcome challenges in treating tumors near the optic nerve, which pose a threat to individuals’ vision, or in other high-risk cases, such as patients likely to experience cardiac complications during or after surgery. Watch the full talk to learn more about what the future of neurosurgery holds.

Previously: A Stanford neurosurgeon discusses advances in treating brain tumors, Stanford celebrates 20th anniversary of the CyberKnife and Stanford brain tumor research featured on “Bay Area Proud”

Genetics, Neuroscience, Research, Science, Stanford News

Yeast advance understanding of Parkinson’s disease, says Stanford study

Yeast advance understanding of Parkinson's disease, says Stanford study

It’s amazing to me that the tiny, one-celled yeast can be such a powerful research tool. Now geneticist Aaron Gitler, PhD, has shown that the diminutive organism can even help advance the understanding of Parkinson’s disease and aid in identifying new genes involved in the disorder and new pathways and potential drug targets. He published his findings today in Neuron and told me in an email:

Parkinson’s disease is associated with many genetic and environmental susceptibility factors. Two of the newest Parkinson’s disease genes, EIF4G1 and VPS35, encode proteins involved in protein translation (the act of making protein from RNA messages) and protein sorting (shuttling proteins to the correct locations inside the cell), respectively. We used unbiased yeast genetic screens to unexpectedly discover a strong genetic interaction between these two genes, suggesting that the proteins they encode work together.

The proteins, EIF4G1 and VPS35, have changed very little from yeast to humans. Gitler and his colleagues showed that VPS35 interacts functionally with another protein implicated in Parkinson’s disease, alpha-synuclein, in yeast, round worms and even laboratory mice. As Gitler described:

Together, our findings connect three seemingly distinct Parkinson’s disease genes and provide a path forward for understanding how these genes might contribute to the disease and for identifying therapeutic interventions. More generally, our approach underscores the power of simple model systems for interrogating even complex human diseases.

Previously: Researchers pinpoint genetic suspects in ALS and In Stanford/Gladstone study, yeast genetics further ALS research

Clinical Trials, Emergency Medicine, Neuroscience, Research

Clinical trial shows progesterone doesn’t improve recovery from head trauma

Clinical trial shows progesterone doesn't improve recovery from head trauma

800px-thumbnailResearchers had high hopes that progesterone, that multipurpose endogenous steroid, could stave off some of the worst effects of head injuries. A quick injection soon after a blunt trauma and  — wa-zam — marked improvement on the widely used Glasgow Outcome Scale, which measures brain injuries on a scale from death to low disability. Or so they thought.

Instead, a nationwide clinical trial was called off after early analyses showed no benefit. The findings were published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine.

“These results are plainly disappointing,” said lead investigator David Wright, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Emory University, in an Emory release.

Stanford, in partnership with Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and the Regional Medical Center of San Jose, enrolled approximately 80 patients in the study between 2008 and 2013, said James Quinn, MD, a Stanford emergency medicine physician. Quinn said there were many benefits to the study even though the results didn’t suggest an improvement.

“The patients all got great care,” Quinn said.  The care teams worked to ensure the care was standardized and top notch for study participants, he said. In addition, there’s still a possibility that progesterone administered closer to the time of injury might help patients. To adhere with study protocols, the teams had to wait one hour after the patient arrived at the emergency room before providing the progesterone or placebo, Quinn said.

The study had a unique design, in part because emergency trauma patients can often not provide consent. Instead, the research team publicized the study before starting and gave participants the opportunity to opt out when they were able.

Quinn also made note of an observation made by he and his colleagues:  Although nationwide most injuries stemmed from vehicle crashes, the Stanford-led teams saw an abundance of bicycle accidents.

Previously: For prolonged seizures, a quick shot often does the trick, study finds, Stanford Medicine story on surviving brain injury wins health journalism award and Estradiol — but not Premarin — prevents neurodegeneration in women at heightened dementia risk
Photo by U.S. Navy

Chronic Disease, Neuroscience, Parenting, Pediatrics, Research

High blood sugar linked to reduced brain growth in children with Type 1 diabetes

High blood sugar linked to reduced brain growth in children with Type 1 diabetes

Some areas of the brain grow more slowly in children with Type 1 diabetes than those without, according to findings published this week in Diabetes. Researchers also found that children with the highest and most variable blood sugar levels had the slowest brain growth.

Glucose, the main form of sugar in our blood, is the brain’s primary fuel, and in Type 1 diabetes, the body loses the ability to produce a key hormone needed to regulate blood sugar levels. Type 1 diabetes treatment for children has often focused on making sure their glucose levels don’t get too low, since very low glucose can quickly put someone into a coma. But it’s emerging that chronically-high sugar is also bad for the brain.

The better the glucose control, the more likely that a child’s brain development will be unimpeded.

The new study, conducted at Stanford and four other universities, tracked brain structure and cognitive function in 144 young children with Type 1 diabetes and a comparison group of 72 children without diabetes over 18 months. MRI scans showed that the brains of both groups of kids were growing, but gray- and white-matter growth was slower in several areas of the brain in the diabetic children.

“These studies provide strong evidence that the developing brain is a vulnerable target for diabetes complications,” the researchers wrote. The affected brain areas have a variety of roles, including visual-spatial processing; auditory, language and object processing; executive function; spatial and working memory; and integration of information from sensory systems.

I asked two of the paper’s Stanford authors for more thoughts about what they found.

“The magnitude of the group differences in brain growth over time was surprising,” said Allan Reiss, MD, the study’s senior author. “I actually thought these differences would be more subtle — they were not.”

Past studies have found cognitive and brain-structure changes associated with diabetes in older patients, but this research stands out because the kids included were so young — at the start of the study, their ages ranged from 4 to just under 10, with an average age of 7 — and because the study had a prospective design, following children forward in time. In addition to examining brain structure, the researchers also tested the kids’ cognitive function with standard tests of IQ, learning and memory, and mood and behavior, among others. They saw no significant differences in cognitive function between the two groups, a finding Reiss said did not surprise him.

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Behavioral Science, Global Health, Neuroscience, Stanford News

Stanford Rhodes Scholar heading to Oxford to study ways "the brain can go awry"

Stanford Rhodes Scholar heading to Oxford to study ways "the brain can go awry"

10515175_10152524157302002_5878205180193467577_o-001Undergraduate Emily Witt is one of two Stanford students selected to receive the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study abroad at Oxford next year; an announcement was made late last month.

Witt is a human biology major with a concentration in neuropathology, and she’s minoring in psychology. Her research experience thus far spans neuroscience, psychology, autoimmune pathology, and health in the developing world; and she says she’s interested in studying “any way that the brain or the nervous system can go awry.”

Witt, who plans to attend medical school after her scholarship tenure, works in the lab of  neurologist Lawrence Steinman, MD, PhD, which seeks to understand the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases, particularly multiple sclerosis. She’s using the lab to conduct research for her honors thesis, which focuses on the mechanisms of vitamin D in multiple sclerosis. She’s also involved with the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research and has participated in various studies related to autism and social cognition.

After hearing about this honor, I reached out to Witt with some questions about her work and her future plans:

How did you become interested in this field?

I’m interested in MS for two reasons. On a personal level, I have seen the devastating impact of the disease first-hand as my uncle has the progressive form of MS. Watching his condition worsen, and seeing the impact it has had on his life and the life of my aunt and cousins, inspired me to research this horrible disorder.

On an intellectual level, I’m fascinated by the interaction between the immune system and the brain. I believe it’s an incredibly important area of research as the immune system is a contributing factor to numerous neurological diseases, from multiple sclerosis and autism to depression.

What makes Oxford a particularly appealing place for you to study? Who or what do you hope to work with there?

I’m interested in working with two neuroscientists who are experimental psychologists; they’re actually bridging the gap between experimental psychology and neuroscience, which are the two degrees I’m hoping to pursue while at Oxford. One is Elaine Fox, who researches cognitive biases, and the other is Catherine Harmer, [who studies the] pharmacological aspects of depression and how they affect cognitive biases, particularly with respect to depression and anxiety.

Are you interested in contextual understandings of disease or degeneration – its social roots? How does interdisciplinary work fit into your imagining of what you’re doing and would like to do?

That’s what my primary motivation going forward is: kind of connecting what I see in everyday life and how neurological [diseases] manifest and what I understand about them biologically. So what I’m really interested in is combining a fundamental understanding of psychology with clinical applications of neuroscience… Because I do think that… there’s still a wide gap between studying the brain on a molecular and cellular level, and studying it on a behavioral level.

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