Bullying-More Harmful than Childhood Abuse?

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In the US, 1.2% of children under 18 experience abuse (American Humane Association) and 77% of students experience bullying (bullyingstatistics.org). Abuse victims have entire organizations to advocate for their safety and well-being, while in 85% of bullying cases, no one intervenes (bullyingstatistics.org). But this makes sense because abuse is so much worse than bullying right? New research has found that the lasting effects of bullying may actually be worse than  those of abuse.

Maltreatment was tracked until age 9 and then children were asked about bullying at ages 8, 10, and 13 and then mental health outcomes including anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendencies were assessed in early adulthood. Surprisingly, the results showed that bullying or bullying and maltreatment both increased the risk of mental health problems more than maltreatment alone. In fact, bullied participants were 4.9 times more likely than maltreated participants to develop an anxiety disorder.

If these outcomes are as dramatic as they are reported to be, the contribution bullying makes to mental illness cannot be ignored. Although the public has come a long way from thinking bullying is a harmless part of growing up, this research suggests that we need to be taking bullying even more seriously than we already are.

http://www.iflscience.com/brain/price-bullying-measured

http://www.americanhumane.org/children/stop-child-abuse/fact-sheets/child-abuse-and-neglect-statistics.html

http://www.bullyingstatistics.org/content/school-bullying-statistics.html

Mr. Tickle and the evolution of Tickling

Mr._Tickle

 

We automatically associate the word “tickle” with play, laughter, and tend to pair the word with multiple people (after all, who tickles themselves).

Shakespeare states in the Merchant of Venice

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”.

Selden in his review of the behavior of tickling separates the action into two different families: knismesis, and light noxious tickling and gargalesis, a tickling sensation that induces heavy laughter. It is important to note here that tickling can be both aversive and pleasurable, and the action that is induced by extrinsic force.

In terms of neurophysiology, it is thought that extrinsic stimulation to several different pressure receptors may cause the pleasurable feeling. However, depending on whether you’re receiving an aggressive tickle from a sibling, or the light brushing of a feather, light touch and hard touch take different paths up the central nervous system to the brain. This pathway is different from the pathway generally associated with itch, yet it is curious to think that a pin could elicit a feeling of pain, or a tickling sensation solely depending on pressure.  The anterior supplemental motor are of the frontal cortex is associated with laughter so it could be that tickling activates this region of the brain. Interestingly the reason why you or I cannot tickle ourselves is because the afferent sensory information coming from our receptors is negated in the cerebellum. But, what about when an appendage such as an arm or leg falls asleep at night because we may sleep in an awkward position? When, say you arm for example, goes numb, this is due to the ulnar nerve being compressed and as a result no stimulation passes from your hand to your brain. So, potentially then we could self-tickle.

Tickling as a social behavior though is important. For example tickling solidifies the bond between mother and child during infancy and allows for more maternal contact. During childhood tickling is very much a social behavior used to develop social skills. Finally later in adolescence, and in adulthood tickling becomes more erotic and a faceted behavior of sexual foreplay.

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References:

Selden ST. Tickle. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 50(1):93-97. 2004

http://www.md-health.com/Arms-Falling-Asleep-At-Night.html

Sherlock Holmes and the Neuroscience of Deductive Reasoning

For my final blog post, I thought I would have a bit of fun and talk about the one of my favorite fictional characters: Sherlock Holmes. I sincerely wish my brain worked like that of Holmes. I envy his innate and incredible ability to read situations and deduce extraordinary amounts of information about individuals. I mean, the man can look at a toothpaste stain and somehow know a person was out late the previous night, overslept, and was late for a meeting, as if this was an obvious fact. Sure, Holmes can be socially awkward and a bit of an ass, but his reasoning skills are enough to leave anybody impressed. So, I am going to use this last blog post to pick apart what is going on inside the famous brain of Sherlock Holmes.

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Two powerful skills allow Sherlock to be a successful detective: observation and deduction. Possessing these talents allow Holmes to notice and react to subtle cues during conversations, draw upon the slightest of details when needed, and solve the toughest puzzles and mysteries in the world. They also enable him to attend to relevant clues and create connections between seemingly insignificant events or objects. So, what is going on in the brain that gives Sherlock these two powers? Let’s get into the neuroscience…

Observation:

According to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, “it is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which are vital. Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated.” For Holmes, the ability to gather facts and select relevant clues, all while ignoring extraneous information that could cloud his reasoning, is critical in solving his cases. How does he do this? I believe the answer lies in mindfulness. Every day, we see, hear, feel, and smell countless objects. However, we rarely register these stimuli into our consciousness. By not paying attention to them, we cannot encode them into memory and recall them in the future. The mind of Holmes is different. He is conscious of his surroundings and observes each sense. By attuning to the minute visual, tactile, or auditory senses, he takes them out of his working memory and encodes them into his long term memory for future use. In the end, this creates a catalogue of memories he may use in his cases.

Deductive reasoning and forming connections:

Holmes is wonderful at observing the world around him. However, this is useless unless he can make connections between what he observes and what he knows. Fortunately, our favorite character has this ability, too. What in the brain allows him to be a master at forming connections and deducing what events transpired? I argue there are two important aspects: memory and imagination. Holmes remembers details and creates links in ways that nobody else can, which makes him a master at solving crimes. The sheer amount of tiny details Holmes remembers is staggering; one possible reason for this is that he encodes knowledge more easily by giving it a mental location and seeing its uses right away. Holmes creates a mind map (or “mind palace” if you watch BBC’s Sherlock); he visualizes a place where he can physically deposit his memories. Then, he links the new information with previous knowledge, which solidifies the memories in his head. It is of course also possible that Holmes has a more developed hippocampus than the average individual, enabling him to store more information.

Still, the mind map or extra memory capacity is only valuable when paired with Holmes’ imagination. Imagination is complicated; it stems from a widespread network of brain areas that collectively manipulate ideas and images. It is possible that Holmes simply has a larger network, or one with more cross talk and connections. In either case, this enhanced imagination paired with Holmes’ increased memory capacity creates a brain wired for solving mysteries. Check out the Mind Palace of Sherlock Holmes in BBC’s Sherlock below (its the best sherlock version out there- watch it!)

Sherlock Holmes is a witty, outrageous character who manages to fascinate and delight us at the same time. His incredible aptitude for solving crimes captivates audiences, and it’s all due to his enhanced observational and deductive reasoning skills. I hope I have provided some insight into what might be occurring in Sherlock’s brain that facilitates his great talents. Also, check out how improve your memory and make your own mind palace below!

Sources:

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-25/edition-6/new-voices-curious-case-sherlock-holmes-and-perceptual-load

Miller, L. (1985). Sherlock Holmes’s methods of deductive reasoning applied to medical diagnostics. Western Journal of Medicine142(3), 413.

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/secrets-sherlocks-mind-palace-180949567/?no-ist

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shadow-boxing/201301/mind-sherlock-holmes

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/08/19/dont-just-see-observe-what-sherlock-holmes-can-teach-us-about-mindful-decisions/

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova

Think twice before you sit down to study!

As we approach the final week of school and finals, there will be countless hours dedicated to studying. We will sit in our special study spots and stare at either a computer screen, a set of notecards, a notebook or various books. Our activity is limited as we sit for hours. How does this sitting actually impact our studying? And how does sitting impact our brain? According to Dr. James Levine from the Mayo Clinic of Arizona State University sitting is a risk factor for our health. When we sit for an hour we lose about two hours of our life…that is a significant impact on our health (Bergland, 2015). So the question is: if sitting is a major health risk, what is this sedentary position doing to our brain? It is certainly not helping us in a positive way.
When we are in this sedentary position for long hours many different things contribute to our health. The first area in our body it affects is our brain. When we are physically active, our muscles move and therefore fresh blood and oxygen is pumped through our bodies and delivered to the brain. When this happens, the blow flow triggers many chemicals that our brain releases. Among these are mood chemicals that make us more positive, upbeat, creative and happy. When we sit for a long period of time, these processes slow down which ultimately slows down the rate that our brain is functioning at. This can be experienced as “fogginess” by many people and this state often affects how clearly people think. Other body parts are affected as well like the neck, shoulders and back. The neck is strained when a person cranes his or her neck forward to look at a computer or down while reading a book or paper on a desk. The shoulders slouch with the neck creating a slumped motion, and the discs of the back are squashed unevenly. There is other damage that sitting long periods of time causes; heart disease, an over productive pancreas and colon cancer. We could have muscle degeneration and leg disorders involving poor circulation in the legs (Berkowitz & Patterson, 2014). So what is one way that allows us to still study or work but isn’t as taxing on our health?
In a study recently conducted in 2015 by the Texas A&M Health Science Center School, researchers looked at the effects of standing desks verses sitting desks. They had participants do a series of behavioral tasks that included classroom engagement such as answering questions, raising a hand and participating in discussion. Other behavioral observations included speaking out of turn or disrupting the class. Results of the study showed that there was a 12 percent greater increase in behavioral tasks when students were using standing desk versus sitting. There is evidence that standing desks would be better for students which is ultimately important for learning and active engagement (Dornhecker et al, 2015).
It would be beneficial if we could all have standing desks in the classroom as we learn. However, would the desks be distracting or tiring for people? Questions still remain regarding the effectiveness but it is a step forward for our health and a way to keep blood flowing to our brains. If possible during finals week, go outside briefly and walk around for increased blood flow or attempt to alternate standing and sitting while studying!


Sources:

Bergland, C. (2015, April 26). Sitting Can Drain Brain Power and Stifle Creativity: A standing desk can improve cognitive engagement and creative thinking. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201504/sitting-can-drain-brain-power-and-stifle-creativity
Berkowitz, B., Clark, P. (2014, Jan 20). The health hazards of sitting. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/page/national/the-health-hazards-of-sitting/750/
Dornhecker, M., Blake, J. J., Benden, M., Zhao, H., & Wendel, M. (2015). The effect of stand-biased desks on academic engagement: an exploratory study. International Journal of Health Promotion and Education, (ahead-of-print), 1-10.

Some Shocking News About tDCS

The sun is out, the birds are chirping, and the annual sod placement is well underway. These events may signify the arrival of spring to many, but for college students it means something else: finals season. Many on campus may be considering different study strategies as their tests loom ahead, likely in the form of caffeine schedules and study guides. However, some may attempt to use a more neurological based method of academic enhancement.

A  method of brain stimulation known as trans-cranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) has been used as a cognitive aid for over a decade. This technique involves targeting certain cortices in the brain with electric currents in order to stimulate neuron activity and enhance brain functioning. The line of research on tDCS typically attempts to investigate its capacity to improve brain function in subjects with cognitive deficits. The findings that suggested tDCS had a cognitive enhancement function caused a wave of home-use of the treatment in the early 2000s. The video below is a tutorial for how to make your own tDCS device, to stimulate brain activity.

However, a new finding has created concern regarding the long term effects of this treatment. Sellers et al (2015) found that long term tDCS treatment actually has detrimental effects on subjects’ IQ. The study implied that previous studies on tDCS were not sufficiently rigorous. Specifically, they failed to used proper double blind and control groups, which likely made their results unreliable. Sellers et al. (2015) tested 40 healthy adults, giving half tDCS treatment, and the other half a sham electric current that did not stimulate the brain. Stellers et al. (2015) found a decrease in IQ scores following the tDCS treatment, particularly in the perceptual reasoning portion. The finding that tDCS can decrease IQ is intriguing and concerning because it challenges years of assumptions about electric current stimulation and its potential benefits for cognitive function.

Despite the finding about tDCS, other forms of electric current stimulation don’t seem to have the same negative effects. A different electronic current strategy, known as tACS, mimics the naturally fluctuating electric currents in the brain. Sellers et al. (2015) found that this therapy did not have the detrimental effects to IQ. This created promising evidence that some electro-stimulation can still be beneficial in improving cognitive deficits, but that stimulation must be targeted and it must better reflect natural stimulation of the brain’s neurons.

The findings of this research provide evidence for why we should be skeptical about brain enhancing therapies and treatments. When our understanding the brain is so limited, it is important to be cautious of altering its function unless absolutely necessary. However upsetting it might be to hear, this means no magical short cuts for memorizing all of those brain regions for your Biological Basis of Behavior class, just good old fashioned coffee and flashcards.

 

Source:

  1. Kristin K. Sellers, Juliann M. Mellin, Caroline M. Lustenberger, Michael R. Boyle, Won Hee Lee, Angel V. Peterchev, Flavio Frohlich. Transcranial direct current stimulation of frontal cortex decreases performance on the WAIS-IV intelligence test. Behavioural Brain Research, 2015; DOI: 10.1016/j.bbr.2015.04.031

Diabetes and Alzheimer’s

Could diabetes be a cause of Alzheimer’s? The two diseases, while both very common are seemingly unrelated.  Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disorder in which harmful plaques build up in the brain, causing memory loss and cognitive deficits.  Diabetes, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disease in which the pancreas fails to produce insulin, leading to high blood sugar.  New research points to high blood sugar itself as being a potential cause for Alzheimer’s.

In a mouse model of Alzheimer’s, when mice were injected with glucose, they ended up having 20% more amyloid plaques than control mice.  So what is a possible explanation for this?  The researchers propose that high blood glucose levels led to higher brain activity, which led these mice to produce more amyloid plaques.  Because these mice were genetically engineered to develop Alzheimer’s, would this only happen in people who have a predisposition for the disease?  The researchers did not clarify, but seeing as diabetes is such a common disease and obviously most people with diabetes do not develop Alzheimer’s, there must be some genetic component.  My guess is that high blood sugar simply speeds up the process for people who already have it.

In the second part of the experiment, they gave mice diabetes medications.  In these conditions, the mice produced amyloid at a normal rate, indicating further that it was the high blood sugar likely causing this.  If this isn’t another motivation for people to manage their diabetes then I don’t know what is.

This article instantly caught my eye because a little while ago I read an article in Discover about Alzheimer’s in which they claimed that people on diabetes medications have Alzheimer’s that progresses slower, but they never gave an explanation.  In addition, I have family members with Type 1 diabetes, and they are always very careful to manage their blood sugar levels to prevent some of the more common complications of diabetes, such as blindness.  This research just adds another motivation.

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/293581.php

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