Believe it or not – It IS possible to understand the teenage brain!!

Adolescence is the period between childhood and adulthood. This stage of life is marked by increased cognitive abilities, social sensitivity, and increasing independence. These changes make this time particularly perplexing to some adults, as they struggle to make sense of stereotypical adolescent behaviors such as risk taking, increased allegiance to peers and other behaviors that are sometimes described as ‘knuckle-headed’.

Twenty years ago, adolescent behavior was discussed as being influenced by “raging hormones.” In today’s world, we discuss adolescent behavior in terms of the “teenage brain “.  But what makes the teenage brain different from the child or adult brain? And do these differences have implications for education, learning and social interaction?

Here’s some latest research in adolescent brain development and how the current evidence might inform education during the teenage years. Using neuroscience, we’ve gained some interesting information about the physical changes that take place in the brain during adolescence.

The most important consideration to keep in mind regarding the brain during adolescence is that the brain continues to change. There is evidence for this from multiple lines of research, including cellular work on post-mortem human brain tissue, as well as longitudinal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies of brain structure and function.

With MRI, we have the ability to see how the living human brain changes from birth to old age by taking different kinds of pictures. One kind of picture we can take is of the structure–or anatomy–of the human brain, and we can use this picture to look specifically at two components of the brain’s structure: one component is grey matter, which is largely made up of brain cell bodies and their connections. And the other is white matter, which is primarily the long connecting fibers that carry signals between brain regions.

There have been a few studies now where hundreds of participants had their brains scanned multiple times across development, and we know from these studies that the amount of grey matter is greatest during childhood, but decreases during adolescence before roughly stabilizing in the mid- to late- twenties.  We also know that the amount of white matter increases almost linearly across adolescence. These are two major changes happening in the structure of our brain during adolescence.

We have also learned that these changes don’t all happen at once.  Structural changes are not occurring at the same time across the whole brain. Actually, areas of the brain that are involved in basic sensory processing or movement develop earlier than areas of the brain involved in more complex processes such as inhibiting inappropriate behavior, planning for the future, and understanding other people. These and other complex processes rely on areas in the prefrontal, temporal and parietal cortices, which are continuing to change in structure across the second decade of life.

So, how do these changes happen?

We still do not know the specific cellular mechanisms that underlie developmental changes in measures of grey or white matter, but it is often thought that these decreases in grey matter reflect, at least in part, changes in connectivity between brain cells. These changes include decreases in dendritic spine density (which is basically a proxy for how interconnected cell bodies are in the grey matter) and other cellular processes involved in synaptic pruning (which is the way that connections in the brain are broken). Histological work, which involves studying the cells using microscopes, has given us a better understanding of the cellular changes occurring in the human brain across the lifespan.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. The continued reduction in synapses seen in the prefrontal cortex means that the brain is still undergoing changes in organization during adolescence. As humans, we have an excess amount of brain connections when we are children, and almost half of these connections can be lost in adolescence. We know that experience influences what connections are kept and subsequently strengthened. Thus we can think of adolescence as a time of transition rather than a time of loss in certain areas of the brain.

MRI can also be used to see how blood flows in the brain, which allows researchers to get a sense of how the brain is working. So if MRI alone reveals brain structure, you can think of fMRI (or “functional MRI”) as revealing brain function. Many fMRI studies have also shown changes in brain functionality across adolescence. For example, how we use areas of the brain involved in understanding other people changes between adolescence and adulthood.

This is especially true for “the social brain”. There are a number of cognitive processes that are involved in interacting with and understanding other people, and we can use functional MRI to see what areas of the brain are active when we engage in important social tasks like understanding the intentions or emotions behind facial expressions or understanding social emotions like guilt or embarrassment. Tasks like these consistently recruit a number of brain regions in the prefrontal and temporal cortex, which is sometimes referred to as the “social brain.”

Although adolescents and adults use the same areas of the brain during a number of social tasks like understanding intentions and social emotions, these tasks all show a similar decrease in activity across age in this medial prefrontal cortex area, which is a part of the brain often related to social processing Adolescents seem to use this part of the prefrontal cortex more than adults when doing certain social tasks.

So what does it all mean?

Neuroscience has helped us learn how the brain is changing in both its structure and function during adolescence, highlighting in particular the changes involved in areas of the brain used when we attempt to understand the thoughts, intentions and feelings of other people. These changes are relevant because of the developmental tasks that adolescents must accomplish. One of the major developmental tasks of adolescence is to learn how to successfully navigate our highly social world.

So, hang in there parents, having a malleable brain during adolescence is exactly how your teenager gains new social skills as well as higher levels of cultural rules and expectations. It’s just not going to happen overnight….

 

How to Have Some Fun and Increase the White Matter Integrity in the Brain

People have been obsessed with reversing the aging process since the days of Ponce de Leon and his ‘fountain of youth’. In the last few decades, we’ve seen huge shifts in longevity in developed countries.  More people are not only reaching old age, they’re reaching very old age.  Researchers have been focusing their studies on finding new strategies to meet the concept of ‘successful aging’ – the avoidance of disease and disability and the maintenance of physical and cognitive functions with an engagement in social and productive activities.

During aging, sensorimotor, cognitive and physical performance all decline, but new research indicates that they can improved by training and exercise, indicating that age-related changes are treatable. Dance therapy is increasingly used because it combines many diverse features making it a great tool for increasing physical performance – as well as brain performance!

For years, studies have been focused on programs aimed at improving aerobic capacity and cognitive functions in elderly individuals through physical exercise programs since there is a close relationship between physical fitness and cognitive performance.  But new research finds the benefits of dancing may go well beyond physical exercise therapy because dancing provides increased sensory, motor, and cognitive demands. Dancing is an activity that emerged from a need for social interaction and non-verbal communication, and it is a universal human expression consistent across generations, cultures, and social classes throughout the world. Compared to activities such as physical exercise or playing an instrument, dance comprises rhythmic motor coordination, balance and memory, emotions, affection, social interaction, acoustic stimulation, and musical experience apart from its requirements for physical activity.  This unique combination of properties makes dance a powerful interventional approach to aging. For these reasons, dance has also been established as a therapeutic tool for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, dementia, overweight children, and patients with serious mental illness.

Research has found that dancing is a promising neuro-plasticity tool that elicits activity in multiple brain regions.  A recent study compared the effects of dancing, walking and walking combined with a nutritional intervention to an active control intervention (stretching and toning) on the brain’s white matter integrity (WMI). WMI is a reliable marker of aging in the brain, and lifestyle interventions that promote maintained or improved WMI may be a key ingredient in protecting against cognitive decline and dementia.

Subjects who participated in the dance therapy, which offers a more challenging complex ideo-motor “workout” for the body and the brain, saw significant levels of increased WMI in the fornix, a pathway area of the brain associated with the hippocampus, a key location for learning and memory.  The conclusion was that a proactive program that combines physical, cognitive and social engagement may be a “best bet” for maintaining or improving white matter integrity across the aging process.

THE TAKEAWAY: Dancing is just one way to “up” the ante and offer workouts that not only challenge the body but engage the mind and offer social opportunities. This study confirms the added value of such complex ideo-motor activities over simple motor workouts such as walking, as well as the boost of social-based training for better brain health.

So don’t just sit there – get up DANCE!

 

Turn Summer Brain Drain into Brain Gain!

While summer break is a fun time packed with family activities it’s also when a phenomenon strikes that teachers know all too well—the “summer slide” or “Brain Drain” – the loss of knowledge and ability that occurs when formal education stops during the summer.

Research shows that all young people experience learning losses when they don’t engage in educational activities during the summer. In fact, the average student loses approximately 2.6 months of grade-level equivalency in math computation skills over the summer months. This learning loss affects children when they begin their new school year in September because teachers typically spend four weeks re-teaching or reviewing material that students have forgotten over summer break. Playing ‘catch-up’ as the school year begins can also negatively effect your child’s self esteem.

While your brain is not a muscle, the adage ‘use it or lose it’ certainly holds true for your brain too. Mental exercise can keep the brain strong, just as physical exercise can keep the body strong.

Here are some ideas to help your child get their brain “exercising” before school starts:

Tips for Grade Schoolers:

20 Questions.  Think of a person or thing and give your child 20 chances to guess what it is by asking yes or no questions. Sharpens memory, logic and reasoning skills.

Rhyme Time.  Have your child choose four rhyming words and use them to create a poem. For younger kids, simply say a word then take turns coming up with words that rhyme with it. Builds auditory analysis, verbal rhythm and memory.

Needle in a Haystack.  Take a page from a newspaper and time your child as she circles all occurrences of a specific letter or word. Improves visual processing speed and sustained attention.

Counting Counts.  Encourage your child to count by 2’s, 3’s, 4’s etc. when they go up stairs, dribble a basketball, swing on a swing set or jump rope.  Builds math fluency, processing speed, divided attention and memory.

Play Time is Gain Time.  Play is crucial to healthy brain development. Prioritize play with your kids to keep their creative juices flowing and minds working.

Pick a Pen Pal.   It doesn’t matter whether it’s a family member or friend, near or far, writing letters  will give kids a chance to rehash and share their summer adventures and practice their writing in the process.

Teach mini-lessons.   Transform everyday activities into learning opportunities. Children can count change, read directions for a trip, write a shopping list, or calculate a recipe’s measurements.

Gather activity books.   Give children their own activity book with crossword puzzles or number games customized for their specific age group.  Set a “due date” to keep them on track, but let them work at their own pace.

Strategize screen time.  Educational computer games or apps can engage students’ minds, but make sure your child is spending enough time away from the screen.  Assign a daily block of time for family members to turn off phones, computers, and the TV, and instead play a board game or read together.

Talk to your child.  So many conversations between parents and kids during the school year are directional: “Get up; get in the car; do your homework.”  Before you are back in the grind make some time to chat. Spend time getting to know how your child feels about going back to school, any concerns they may have.

Have Kids’ Dinner Night.  Once a child is 10 or 11, have him be fully responsible for dinner one night.  That means coming up with the shopping list (Mom or Dad still has to pay), setting the table, preparing the meal, deciding on the dinner conversation topic and cleaning up afterward. It involves math, organizational and, perhaps most importantly, life skills.

Tips for Middle-schoolers:

Middle school is a huge transition and, for many kids, can be fraught with academic and social insecurity.  But it’s also a time when kids are discovering different ways to learn, and that can make summer learning especially important.

Do something new. Middle school is all about exploring new interests. Your child may discover an interest that you never imagined. So expose them to a new sport, a new hobby, a new class.

Be nontraditional. If you want your child to start reading before school starts, great. But don’t force him to do the reading you think he should be doing. Going online to read something and having a discussion about it can be just as educational as reading a novel from a book list.

Help make connections. For middle school kids, relevancy is so important; if they have experienced something, then they can understand it better. So go downtown, visit a museum or an art gallery. Social learning is important for kids this age.

Tips for High-schoolers:

It’s very difficult for adults to understand how stressful high school is. The amount of stress high school kids put on themselves to get into college means that they are thinking about their future constantly. By the time kids are in high school, you want them to understand that learning is a lifelong pursuit.

Start a store.  Use math skills and organization to plan the store and “sell” goods.

Explore “Going Green.” Your carbon footprint and whether recycling is all it’s cracked up to be: These activities involve not only math skills, but applying research to higher level critical thinking and analysis.

Go to an outdoor movie festival.  It doesn’t feel like learning, but watching ‘Casablanca’ absolutely is.  And so is the shared experience of discussing it afterward.

Be the editor of your family newsletter.  Practice journalistic and writing skills, including interviews, news, pictures, advertisements and even cartoons.

Grow your own food.  Children who grow their own food are more likely to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as gaining knowledge about nutrition and healthy eating.

Do something that opens your world.  Not everyone can study French in Paris. But there are so many opportunities to learn by accident.  And if you’re having fun and you learn something, you’ll remember it forever.

Take some positive steps to ensure the brain is ready, willing and able when school starts!

Can Early Brain Development Predict Autism in Toddlers?

In the larger context of neuroscience research and treatment, there is currently a big push within the field of neurodegenerative diseases to be able to detect the biomarkers of these conditions before patients are diagnosed, at a time when preventive efforts are possible.  In Parkinson’s for instance, we know that once a person is diagnosed, they’ve already lost a substantial portion of the dopamine receptors in their brain, making treatment less effective.  The idea with autism is similar; once autism is diagnosed at age 2-3 years, the brain has already begun to change substantially.

So – this begs the question: Can we find a way to identify which infants are at risk to be diagnosed with autism before 24 months of age?

A  first-of-its-kind study at University of North Carolina Health Care was recently conducted on high-risk babies – those who have older siblings with autism.  Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) were used to image the brains of infants, and then researchers used brain measurements and a computer algorithm to accurately predict autism before symptoms set in.  Researchers from around the country were able to correctly predict 80 percent of those infants who would later meet criteria for autism at two years of age.

The study shows that early brain development biomarkers could be very useful in identifying babies at the highest risk for autism before behavioral symptoms emerge.  Typically, the earliest an autism diagnosis can be made is between ages two and three.  But for babies with older autistic siblings, the MRI imaging approach may help predict during the first year of life which babies are most likely to receive an autism diagnosis at 24 months.

The research project included hundreds of children from across the country and was led by researchers at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at the University of North Carolina.  The project’s other clinical sites included the University of Washington, Washington University in St. Louis, and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  Other key collaborators are McGill University, the University of Alberta, the University of Minnesota, the College of Charleston, and New York University.

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (or ASD) have characteristic social deficits and demonstrate a range of ritualistic, repetitive and stereotyped behaviors.  It is estimated that one out of 68 children develop autism in the United States.  For infants with older siblings with autism, the risk may be as high as 20 out of every 100 births.  There are about 3 million people with autism in the United States and tens of millions around the world.

Despite much research, it has been impossible to identify those at ultra-high risk for autism prior to 24 months of age, which is the earliest time when the hallmark behavioral characteristics of ASD can be observed and a diagnosis made in most children.

For this study, researchers from around the country conducted MRI scans of infants at six, 12, and 24 months of age.  They found that the babies who developed autism experienced a hyper-expansion of brain surface area from six to 12 months, as compared to babies who had an older sibling with autism but did not themselves show evidence of the condition at 24 months of age. Increased growth rate of surface area in the first year of life was linked to increased growth rate of overall brain volume in the second year of life.  Brain overgrowth was tied to the emergence of autistic social deficits in the second year.  Previous behavioral studies of infants who later developed autism — who had older siblings with autism -revealed that social behaviors typical of autism emerge during the second year of life.

The researchers then took these data — MRIs of brain volume, surface area, cortical thickness at 6 and 12 months of age, and sex of the infants — and used a computer program to identify a way to classify babies most likely to meet criteria for autism at 24 months of age. The computer program developed the best algorithm to accomplish this, and the researchers applied the algorithm to a separate set of study participants.

The researchers found that brain differences at 6 and 12 months of age in infants with older siblings with autism correctly predicted eight out of ten infants who would later meet criteria for autism at 24 months of age in comparison to those infants with older ASD siblings who did not meet criteria for autism at 24 months.  This means we potentially can identify infants who will later develop autism, before the symptoms of autism begin to consolidate into a diagnosis.

If parents have a child with autism and then have a second child, such a test might be clinically useful in identifying infants at highest risk for developing this condition.  The idea would be to then intervene ‘pre-symptomatically’ before the emergence of the defining symptoms of autism.

Research could then begin to examine the effect of interventions on children during a period before the syndrome is present and when the brain is most malleable.  Such interventions may have a greater chance of improving outcomes than treatments started after diagnosis.

Until this new research, there hasn’t been a way to detect the biomarkers of autism before the condition sets in and symptoms develop.  Now there is very promising leads that suggest this may in fact be possible.

Biomarkers – ‘Precision Medicine’ for the Brain

From the time of the ancient Greeks, medical practitioners have searched for biomarkers for physical illnesses. Hippocrates tasted patients’ urine for sweetness (he is thought to have been the first to diagnose diabetes mellitus).  More recently, doctors relied on patients’ complaints about the severity of their chest pains in order to diagnose a heart attack. Today, they measure cardiac enzymes in the bloodstream.

Think of it this way: Cancer treatment doesn’t treat the symptoms of cancer.  You don’t want the swelling to go down or the pain to disappear; you want to get rid of the cancer.  But that’s the protocol clinicians and researchers have used for years – the cataloging of symptoms such as sadness, fatigue and loss of appetite, rather than looking for biological clues associated with the symptoms in a blood test, a brain image or a saliva sample. The focus was treating the symptoms of mental disorders, not the causes.

Neuroscience’s inroads have emboldened a small but growing number of clinicians and researchers to reject diagnostic protocols on which mental health practitioners have relied for years and instead focus on finding the biomarkers, the concrete measurements of mental illness.

There was a huge shift in the approach to diagnose and treat mental illnesses beginning in 2013, when the National Institute of Mental Health announced that the government, the largest funder of mental health research in the world, drastically shifted its priorities.  Research based solely on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the chief tool of mental health professionals, would no longer be funded.  The reason was “its lack of validity.”   First published in 1952, the manual has changed over the years, but its categorization of mental illnesses was based nearly entirely on symptoms either reported by the patient or observed by the clinician.  New funding is based on the premise that mental disorders are biological disorders involving brain circuits. Research into diagnosis and treatments such as talk therapy became relegated to the bottom rung of the research ladder.

New psychiatric methods visualize the nervous system and its activities, monitoring the physiological dynamics of mental health.  Rather than targeting brain chemistry to reduce symptoms, researchers now want to focus on brain circuitry.  Their efforts have been bolstered by advances in technology and imaging that now allow scientists not only to see deeper into the brain, but also to study single brain cells to determine which circuits and neurons underlie specific mental and emotional states.

Because of this huge shift from ‘brain chemistry’ to ‘brain circuitry’ some traditional psychotherapists are evolving onto “neurotherapists,” someone who first tries to understand a patient’s brain circuitry, then combines that with both psychological and physiological information to create a treatment plan.

While traditional psychotherapists might begin sessions by asking patients about their thoughts, feelings and problems, new diagnostic protocols might have patients fill out a color-coded form that matches statements about their thoughts and feelings with the parts of the brain most likely involved. Then patients undergo a quantitative electroencephalograph, or qEEG.

The EEG is a map of the brain’s electrical activity and reflects a patient’s emotional and cognitive states. The qEEG compares that information, in real time, to a digital database of hundreds of EEGs of healthy subjects. A patient’s brain map will pulse with red or blue if it is either overactive or under-active, compared with the norm.

Patient treatment plans can include psychotherapy and medication as well as neurofeedback, a technique in which patients are trained to increase or decrease brain-wave activity in the parts of the brain related to their complaints. Another tool is transcranial magnetic stimulation, a noninvasive method of delivering pulses of energy to the head, which has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of depression.

A person’s mental makeup is a kind of hierarchy, with personality on top, which is created by brain states that arise from circuits firing in a certain pattern below. With psychotherapy, you tweak the brain from the top down, dealing first with a patient’s personality and temperament. But with neurofeedback, combined with qEEG, patients are tweaked his from the bottom up, identifying the brain areas involved and then retraining those circuits to fire differently, resulting in changed moods or mental outlooks.

It’s a more precise way to  and it sure beats trial and error.

It’s Spring! Get outside and open your mind!

This time of year seems to bring out our loosey-goosey side. Polish people have a spring tradition of dousing each other with water and chasing each other around with Pussywillow switches. South Asians pelt each other with colored powered as a celebration of the triumph of good over evil. And then there’s Mardi Gras – ‘nuff said. We tend to go a little wild.

This kind of behavior can be cathartic after a winter’s worth of suffering, but there’s evidence that it might be good for you, too.

It’s a given that cold weather can dampen spirits. Depression that returns during the winter months each year—seasonal affective disorder—goes by the extremely apt acronym “SAD.”

Warm weather doesn’t really have the opposite effect, though. A number of studies, including one based on 20,818 observations in Dallas, Texas, found that there was no significant correlation between mood and temperature.

So, if it’s not just the warmer weather that affects us, then what is it?

In a study published in 2005 by Psychological Science, researchers put volunteers through a series of tests to gauge how the weather and the amount of time they spent outside affected their mood, their memory, and how receptive they were to new information.

In the first test, researchers measured the temperature and barometric pressure (high pressure is typically associated with clear, sunny weather) on several days when 97 people reported their mood and how much time they spent outside. Then, the participants were asked to remember a series of numbers. They were also given a short, favorable description of a fake employee, and then given additional, unfavorable information about that same person, and then asked to assess the employee’s competence and performance. The more open-minded among them, the researchers thought, would be able to update their initial impressions with the new information before passing judgment.

All three metrics hinged on the weather and how much time the participants had spent outside. On days with high pressure—the clear, sunny ones—people who spent more than 30 minutes outside saw an increase in memory, mood, and flexible thinking styles. Those who spent the time indoors, though, saw a decrease.

In a second experiment, the researchers asked 121 subjects to either spend time inside or outside on a warm, clear day. Among participants who spent more than 30 minutes outside, higher temperature and pressure were associated with higher moods, but among those who spent 30 minutes or less outside, this relationship was reversed.

A third test was done to determine whether the first two tests were tainted by the fact that they took place in the spring in a northern climate. Data was collected through a website from 387 respondents who lived in various climates, and they correlated the submissions with the weather in each city for that day. They found that the participants who spent more time outside during the spring, but not during other seasons, had better moods.

Temperature changes toward cooler weather in the fall did not predict higher mood. Rather, there appears to be something uniquely uplifting about warm days in the spring.

In summary, across the studies, spending more time outside on clear, sunny days, particularly in the spring, was found to increase mood, memory, and openness to new ideas. People who spent their time indoors, though, had the opposite effect, and one possible explanation for this result is that people consciously resent being cooped up indoors when the weather is pleasant in the spring.

People in industrialized nations spend 93 percent of their time inside, but researchers suggest that if you wish to reap the psychological benefits of good springtime weather, go outside!

This just might be the perfect time of year to turn off your computer and lay a Post-it note on your desk (with a copy of this article) that says “OUT OF OFFICE”. Catch an afternoon ballgame, go fishing or just frolic around a park. You’ll feel better, smarter and become more open-minded. If your boss asks ‘what’s up?’ – just say “I’m brain training!”

Creativity and the “right brain myth”

For years the self-help gurus have been telling us “tap into the right side of your brain to stimulate creativity.” But is it really true?

A new study suggests it’s not necessarily which side of the brain is dominant – it’s how well the two brain hemispheres communicate that sets highly creative people apart.

The study is part of a decade-old field, connectomics, which uses network science to understand the brain. Instead of focusing on specific brain regions in isolation, connectomics researchers use advanced brain imaging techniques to identify and map the rich, dense web of links between them.

The study focused on the network of white matter connections of both sides of the brain. The brain’s white matter lies underneath the outer grey matter. It is composed of bundles of wires, or axons, which connect billions of neurons and carry electrical signals between them.

Researchers used an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging, which allowed them to peer through the skull of a living person and trace the paths of all the axons by following the movement of water along them. Computers then comb through each of the 1-gigabyte scans and convert them to three-dimensional maps — wiring diagrams of the brain.

The team used a combination of tests to assess creativity. The subjects were measured on a type of problem-solving called ‘divergent thinking’ or the ability to come up with many answers to a question. The participants also filled out a questionnaire about their achievements in ten areas, including the visual arts, music, creative writing, dance, cooking and science.

The responses were used to calculate a composite creativity score for each person.

They found no statistical differences in connectivity between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. But when they compared people who scored in the top 15 percent on the creativity tests with those in the bottom 15 percent, high-scoring people had significantly more connections between the right and left hemispheres.

This new method – studying the patterns of interconnections in the brain rather than the regions of the brain is a promising development that is being used in other areas of neuroscience. Researchers are now using these statistical methods to uncover early detection of Alzheimer’s disease, to better understand dementia, epilepsy, schizophrenia and other neurological conditions such as traumatic brain injury or coma and to find out whether brain connectivity varies with I.Q.

Brain Imaging Helps Identify and Treat Different Types of Depression

Millions of Americans suffer from depression. And few find relief even after several months onantidepressants. Research suggests the problem may stem from the way mental illness is diagnosed.

Diseases such as cancer or heart disease can be physically confirmed with objective lab tests, but the problem with diagnosing psychiatric conditions is that they are classified somewhat vaguely as clusters of reported symptoms. A person can be diagnosed as clinically depressed if they say they have low mood and meet at least four additional criteria. Depression can manifest differently from person to person – and symptoms can vary wildly. There really hasn’t been away to differentiate patients who have different kinds of depression. Until now, this has been a
big obstacle in understanding the neurobiology of depression.
Previous studies have shown that stress throws off the flexibility circuits in certain depressed individuals – whereas other people become depressed for different reasons. That is consistent with the view that depression is not just ‘one biological thing.’ In 2008, the National Institute of Mental Health initiated a new set of research priorities which encourages scientists studying mental illness to drill down to core mechanisms rather than placing disorders under blanket labels. This shift in thinking has invigorated the search for a range of biomarkers for depression
—toxic free radicals, the stress hormone cortisol and even epigenetics (environmental triggers that switch genes on and off).
Researchers have previously used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to check for differences in brain connectivity between depressed and healthy people. The analysis showed depressed people could be distinguished from healthy ones based on brain connectivity differences measured by fMRI in the limbic and frontostriatal areas. The limbic system controls emotions and frontostriatal networks help coordinate motor and cognitive functions. One brain area, called the subgenual cingulate cortex, has unusually strong connections with other regions of the brain in people who are depressed.
But in the most recent study, researchers used fMRI, to measure the strength of brain connections between neural circuits. Four subtypes of depression were analyzed. These fMRI-based subdivisions could be linked to particular symptoms. Patients falling into the first two subtypes reported more fatigue whereas those in the other two reported more trouble feeling pleasure. This subtyping has implications not just for diagnosis but potentially for non-pharmaceutical treatment.
People with depression subtype 1 were three times as likely to benefit from a newer therapy known as transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. This technology uses a magnet to produce small electric currents in brain areas affected by depression.  Another technology being successfully used is trans cranial direct stimulation or alternating current, tDCS/tACS.  The brain will mimic or emulate the tDCS/tACS fed into it and the capillary blood flow increases.
These findings and future research could help develop clearer diagnoses and enable doctors to tailor more personalized and new therapies targeting the specific form of depression in each individual patient.

Can’t get that song out of your head?

Whether you are rocking out to Led Zeppelin in your car or reading with Bach in your bedroom, music has a special ability to pump us up or calm us down.  Scientists are still trying to figure out what’s going on in our brain when we listen to music and how it produces such potent effects on the psyche.

Much research has been done using music to help us better understand brain function in general.  Recent studies explored how the brain responds to music. The quest to dissect exactly what chemical processes occur when we put our headphones on is far from over, but scientists have come across some clues.

Listening to music feels good, but can that translate into physiological benefit?

YES!   In one study, researchers studied patients who were about to undergo surgery. Participants were randomly assigned to either listen to music or take anti-anxiety drugs. Scientists tracked patient’s ratings of their own anxiety, as well as the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The results: The patients who listened to music had less anxiety and lower cortisol than people who took drugs.  This points toward a powerful medicinal use for music.  Music is arguably less expensive than drugs, and it’s easier on the body and it doesn’t have side effects.  There is also evidence that music is associated with immunoglobin A, an antibody linked to immunity, as well as higher counts of cells that fight germs and bacteria.

So music is good for us, but how do we judge what music is pleasurable?

A study published in the journal Science suggests that patterns of brain activity can indicate whether a person likes what he or she is hearing.  Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, researchers led a study in which participants listened to 60 excerpts of music they had never heard before.  The participants were asked to indicate how much money they would spend on a given song when listening to the excerpts, while also allowing researchers to analyze patterns of brain activity through the fMRI.  Results noted increased activity in the brain area called the nucleus accumbens, which is involved in forming expectations and a key structure of our brain’s reward network. The more activity in the nucleus accumbens, the more money people said they were willing to spend on any particular song. This was an indicator that some sort of reward-related expectations were met or surpassed.

An area of the brain called the superior temporal gyrus is intimately involved in the experience of music, and its connection to the nucleus accumbens is important, she said. The genres of music that a person listens to over a lifetime impact how the superior temporal gyrus is formed.

The superior temporal gyrus alone doesn’t predict whether a person likes a given piece of music, but it’s involved in storing templates from what you’ve heard before. For instance, a person who has heard a lot of jazz before is more likely to appreciate a given piece of jazz music than someone with a lot less experience.

Have you ever met someone who just wasn’t into music?

They may have a condition called specific musical anhedonia, which affects three-to-five per cent of the population. Researchers have discovered that people with this condition showed reduced functional connectivity between cortical regions responsible for processing sound and subcortical regions related to reward.

This means that when we experience of music, a lot of other things are going on beyond merely processing sound. By using music as a window into the function of a healthy brain, researchers may gain insights into a slew of neurological and psychiatric problems.  Knowing better how the brain is organized, how it functions, what chemical/electrical  synapses  are occurring and how they’re working will allow us to formulate treatments for people with brain injury, or to combat diseases or disorders as well as psychiatric problems.

Is There a Link between Depression, Anxiety and Minor Injuries?

One out of 10 U.S. adults goes to an emergency department every year for injury.  Most injuries are considered relatively minor and providers often don’t look beyond what’s initially required to help that person heal.  But what happens when a person arrives in the emergency department needing help for a minor injury and who also expresses symptoms of depression and anxiety?

Researchers wanted to find out how such patients fared long-term, something relatively well-studied for people with severe injury but uncharted for minor emergency treatment.  They turned to data they had collected from previous work about long-term recovery from minor injuries.

In that initial study, the researchers used standard criteria to identify 1,110 patients who had sustained minor injuries, after excluding those with head trauma, those with a previous psychiatric diagnosis and those hospitalized during the past year for another minor injury.  From this group, 275 men and women were randomly selected and interviewed at intake in the emergency room, as well as at three, six and 12 months after injury.

Along with the larger diagnostic exams that were given, they collected each patient’s symptoms of depression and anxiety using symptom-severity scales called the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale and Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale.

They learned that people with more symptoms of depression at the time of their injury still had trouble working a year later and more frequently required bed rest due to health problems. They found connections, though less substantial, for anxiety, too.

Although it’s unclear what’s driving the relationship between psychological symptoms at the time of injury and long-term recovery, they do know there is a range of symptoms which, if identified and evaluated, could change the way we allocate resources or suggest more intensive follow-up for certain people who might be at higher risk for poor recoveries.

It’s an important link between physical and mental well-being for these patients.

The study further validates that health care providers can’t separate people into psych and physical because there’s an interplay between both that’s important to understand.  If the goal is to get patients back to their normal activities, psychological wellness must be incorporated to treatment after injury in order to meet that goal.

The researchers noted that future research should focus on building a better understanding of the pathways through which psychological symptoms influence long-term recovery.