I am concerned.
Well, I’ll back up a moment and talk you through that. There are a couple of issues that ebb and flow as “hot topics” and neither has anything to do with the other. The First Amendment is one. Eating disorders—specifically anorexia nervosa (AN) and bulimia nervosa (BN)—is the other. I say “eating” disorders, but I think they are more aptly put into the category of “anxiety” disorders. But, that’s not really the topic right now. The topic, what has me concerned, is this: There are websites—quite a number of them, in fact—that glorify these disorders.
Pro-Ana (anorexia) and Pro-Mia (bulimia) websites have message boards where tips and advice are shared, not on how to overcome the disorder, but how to hide it better and be more efficient at it.
For obvious reasons, I won’t be linking to any of these sites, as I normally would.
Why do these sites exist?
Let’s turn to our friends over at ANAD, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Inc. (what a mouthful), to get a little insight into this. According to ANAD:
- ~ 30 million people regardless of age or gender suffer from an eating disorder in the US
- Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness (within the subset of eating disorders, AN has the highest mortality rate)
- In a study following active duty military personnel over time, 5.5 percent of women and four percent of men had an eating disorder at the beginning of the study, and within just a few years of continued service, 3.3 percent more women and 2.6 percent more men developed an eating disorder
- Nine percent of American women suffer from AN in their lifetime
- One in five AN deaths is by suicide
- Five percent of American women suffer from BN in their lifetime
This is maybe one third of the stats you can find on ANAD’s site. 30 million people in the US. That’s 9.2 percent of the US population. That’s 2,925,000 women suffering from AN and 4,875,000 from BN. If 26 percent of females and (according to ANRED.com) 10 percent of males suffer from AN or BN, a businessman would tell you that you’re looking at a ripe market. That’s one reason these sites exist. The market is so ripe, in fact, that one company has struck proverbial oil.
So, we know there is an audience for sites like these, but is that enough? Yes, and no. Sufferers of AN and BN are stigmatized, and none more so than men. To whom do you turn if you have a problem—and you know you have a problem—but you know you’ll be made to feel as though you’re worth less (if not exactly worthless) if you seek help. What will people think of you? That you’re weak? That you’re self-centered? That you value too greatly how others view you? That you can be manipulated by the media, or criticism of your appearance, or whatever the case may be? These feelings of worthlessness, of loneliness, of weakness, of anxiety only increase at the thought of saying something about your problem to someone.
With Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia sites, these individuals have a community. And it’s a community reinforcing the behavior of the disorders.
Why are these sites allowed?
This is my real question. I realize closely monitoring the Internet is like toilet training a cat—possible, maybe worth it, but definitely time, energy, and sanity consuming. Still, you would think websites that aid people in harming themselves, and which could potentially be considered aiding in suicide, would be… you know… not legal. In the same way starving someone is not legal. In the same way assisted suicide is not legal.
I know, I just know, that if Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia sites started to be monitored and subsequently shut down, someone would cry, “You’re violating my First Amendment rights!” Is this true? According to First Amendment Center and Newseum Institute, there are essentially nine categories not protected by the First Amendment:
- Fighting words
- Defamation (including libel and slander)
- Child pornography
- Incitement to imminent lawless action
- True threats
- Solicitations to commit crimes
According to Deb McAlister-Holland, “Chat room conversations that [encourage] suicide [have been] denied First Amendment protection.” That, and also perhaps a bit of common sense, leads me to believe that Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia sites—including forums and chats on such sites—wouldn’t be protected. So, why are they still around, and why are there so many?
While rhetoric on such sites may not be the same as, “Go kill yourself,” in some instances, it’s very close.
Want more info on what is and isn’t covered under the First Amendment? Check out Sam Cook’s article, “The First Amendment and What it Means for Free Speech Online.”
There’s little doubt that illnesses, diseases, disorders, and the like can be scary. Moreover, they can be quite terrifying when little is widely known about them. The parasomnia (sleep disorder) known as Night Terrors (NTs) (sometimes, Sleep Terrors) is one of these misunderstood disorders. I first heard about NTs in a grossly misleading psychology class in college. The class, Motivation and Behavior Psych, was much more closely related to neurobiology or neurochemistry—it’s the class that sparked my deep love of neuroscience.
Right. Back to the topic. NTs are often confused with nightmares. It’s pretty widely known that nightmares suck donkey testicles; they’re vivid, scary, uncomfortable, and usually leave lasting impressions upon waking. In my worst nightmare, I awoke to someone standing over me while I slept. It was so real that, when I actually woke up, I thought the person was there. I couldn’t move, I was scared to open my eyes. It was only when I realized my dogs were calmly sleeping that I knew no one else was in the room.
Vivid? Check. Terrifying? Check! Seared into my memory? Super check. Gargling on the sack of a donkey? You bet! The nightmare, Dave, not me. Seriously. NT? Absolutely not.
So, what’s the difference between NTs and nightmares, and why is it important to know? I’m glad you asked!
Differences between nightmares and NTs range from when during sleep they occur to electroencephalography (EEG) activity. The point here is, the two are fundamentally different. Nightmares, and even nightmare disorder, are “different from NT [and consist of] a lowered motor activity […] the person is not confused on waking up, remembers the nightmares in detail, and the disordered orientation immediately recovers”.² The authors of the article, “Treatment Approach to Sleep Terror: Two Case Reports,” give a robust definition of NT:
NT is classified under parasomnias characterized with sudden attacks of fear associated with the increase in autonomic signs following crying and loud shouting during the first few hours of sleep during the delta stage (associated with the NREM period). Clinically, the person wakes up screaming, scaring, or performing sudden and self-destructive acts (like jumping, running, crashing into something, harming the person beside). The person is non-responsive to the external stimulus during this period […] The person may predominantly experience cognitive impairment signs, such as disordered orientation and memory problems, confusion, and fear on waking up. In addition to these mental symptoms, somatic symptoms associated with the overstimulation of the autonomic system, such as palpitation, sweating, shaking, skin rubor, pupillary response, may appear. While adults generally cannot remember what they experienced the previous night, children can indistinctly remember their fear.²
I think that about sums it up. So, while nightmares generally occur during REM, NTs occur prior to REM, during NREM—or non-rapid eye movement. The result of two independent sleep studies stated that NT episodes “begin exclusively during [NREM] sleep, most frequently during slow-wave sleep (SWS), and should not be considered an acting-out of a dream” and that “consciousness is altered during sleepwalking/sleep terror episodes.”¹ NT is most common in children, with a prevalence of ~3-15 percent, and decreases significantly with age, although, “it seems probable that the notion of sleep terrors is largely unknown to people, therefore different types of nocturnal attacks can be reported as sleep terrors.”¹
Difficulty in obtaining more concrete statistics pertaining to NT is a big indication that NT is a misunderstood parasomnia.
What Triggers NT?
Another great question! Both genetics and environmental stimuli play a role in NT:
It is well known that sleepwalking and night terrors run in families. Based on the study of familial incidence of sleepwalking and sleep terrors proposed that sleepwalking and night terrors share a common genetic predisposition, although the clinical expression of symptoms of these parasomnias may be influenced by environmental factors.”¹
The authors of “Treatment and Approach…” explain that “the risk of occurrence [of NT] among the first-degree relatives is ten folds more compared with those with no family history of NT.”²
Cases of NT have also been reported after stressful and/or significant life events, including divorce—personal or parental—death of a loved one, changing jobs or getting let go, changing schools, etc.
Why Does This Matter?
Part of why this matters is because additional research in NT could point to treatments aside from “making bedrooms safe” for NT sufferers or being prescribed benzodiazepine, which can cause rebounds or addiction. There is, of course, another reason it would be good to be knowledgeable about NT: “NT is highly associated with schizoid, borderline and dependent personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, [and] generalized anxiety disorder.”²
Which is not to say NT sufferers have those disorders. In fact, when comparing individuals with NT to individuals who only demonstrate somnambulism (sleepwalking), only a percentage of sleepwalkers had been diagnosed as psychotic:
In contrast to sleepwalkers, [individuals with NT] demonstrate higher levels of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive traits, phobias, and depression. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) profile suggests an inhibition of outward expression of aggression. A psychiatric diagnosis was established in 85 percent of patients with current night terrors. Although their psychopathology was more severe than in patients with sleepwalking, none of them was diagnosed as psychotic.”¹
Knowing the difference between NT, other arousal parasomnia, and regular ole nightmares can make a difference to the individual suffering from NT. Because a significant symptom of NT is sleepwalking, and because NT sufferers have increased mobility, they could cause damage to self or others.
Personally, I feel it’s important—if you know someone who sleepwalks—to be able to distinguish between and individual with NT and one with somnambulism, you know, on account of those regular ole sleepwalks could be psychotic.
¹Szelenberger, Waldemar, Szymon Niemcewicz, and Anna Justyna Dąbrowska.
“Sleepwalking and Night Terrors: Psychopathological and Psychophysiological
Correlates.” International Review of Psychiatry 17.4 (2005): 263-70.
²Turan, Hatice Sodan, Nermin Gunduz, Aslihan Polat, and Umit Tural. “Treatment
Approach to Sleep Terror: Two Case Reports.” Noro Psikiyatri Arsivi 52.2 (2015):
What’s the big deal with dreams and why is it so important we figure it out? Well, because when we dream, our brain is doing something. So, what if what it’s doing is helping or hurting us? The science behind dreaming—especially the physiology and how it relates to health—is a subject we just don’t know a whole lot about.
The topic of dreams has been a hot one for so many years you can trace it back to Ancient Greece, where they thought dreams told the future. The beliefs about dreams are numerous and range from ridiculous (showing the future) to plausible, including:
- Dreams are a manifestation of the unconscious (show of hands, Freudians)
- Dreams stimulate problem solving
- Dreams help process negative emotions
- Dreams are the collecting/discarding of brain trash (that’s very unjustly put, I admit)
- Dreams consolidate short term memories to long-term memory
- Dreams are a byproduct of neural impulses
Etc., etc., etc.
You see where I’m going with this? So, who’s right? Put your hand down, Dave, you don’t know the answer. There is no answer. Part of the reason for that is because it’s brain-stuff. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say more, but I will. Of all the sciences, neuroscience is probably the one where the least amount of answers have been discovered. And that’s not a slam on neuroscience—for which I have a deep love—it’s a testament to the human brain.
Why Memory Consolidation is so Appealing
The theory of dreams being a byproduct of memory consolidation/processing makes very good sense to me, despite the nay-sayers. Part of the reason I’m so attached to this theory is because I can see it working. Take the elements in this dream I had, for instance:
- I was fresh out of college and the only job I could get was as a manager of a local supermarket
- I had crippling student loans
- I had just come on shift when there was a zombie outbreak, so I had to lead my employees to safety
- I had to run to my car to retrieve my revolver
That dream was both awesome and hilarious. It’s one of my favorites. I am also planning to write a book about it, so hands off my dream! Now, compare the dream elements with my reality:
- When I was fresh out of college, I worked a retail job where I was in management
- I have slightly less-than-crippling, although no less daunting, student loans
- I had been marathon-watching Ash vs. The Evil Dead the day/evening before the dream
- I keep a pistol in my car (this is a judgement-free zone)
This ability to connect dream elements with real world elements gives me the proof I need. But, you’re not me, so I don’t know if the same holds true for you.
Why All the Hubbub About Dreams?
Many people still believe that dreams mean something, whether it’s the expression of the unconscious mind or symbolism of what one might be stressing over, looking forward to, etc. And, if you fall into that category, that’s fine. Remember, judgement-free zone. Mostly.
In any case, learning about dreams—both causes and the result of REM sleep deprivation—can also lead to additional information on such mental health issues as depression, migraines, and the development of mental disorders. I want to note here that, in some cases, REM sleep deprivation has been shown to improve the state of depressive patients.
No matter what you believe dreams to be or not be, mean or not mean, I’d like to think that we can all agree on this: The more we discover about the nature, physiology, and effects of dreaming, the more ammunition we may have against some types of mental health issues. And that, my friends, would be a beautiful thing indeed.
As I was traipsing about the wide and wild world of the interwbs in search of awesome stuff, I stumbled—soberly—across this little nugget. If you don’t feel like going to the original article, then shame on you, but I’ll give you a bit of info on it before we get stared anyway. Take a big breath for this next line, because it’s a doozy. “Proof of Concept of an Online EMG-based Decoding of Hand Postures and Individual Digit Forces for Prosthetic Hand Control,” written by Alicia Gailey and Marco Santello of the School of Biology and Health Systems Engineering, Arizona State University, and Panagiotis Artemiadis of the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport, and Energy, Arizona State University, is part of the closed-loop systems for next-generation neuroprostheses research topic from Frontiers in Neurology, a “Frontiers in” journal series from Frontiers.
I’m almost certain that’s 100-percent accurate, but I’d be more confident if my brain was wired to a calculator. Speaking of Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMIs)…
Researchers are Looking to Improve Prosthetic Device Functions
For individuals who must utilize a prosthesis—in this case, transradial (below the elbow) or transhumeral (above the elbow)—the technology is only getting better. Overall hand and digit movement has improved greatly from the early days of the mannequin arm prosthesis.
According to the authors of “Proof of Concept…,” “Options currently available to individuals with upper limb loss range from prosthetic hands that can perform many movements, but require more cognitive effort to control, to simpler terminal devices with limited functional abilities.”
Which means that, even considering the improvements to hand and arm prostheses, there is still room for growth. In an effort to increase the performance of upper limb prosthetic devices, researches are looking to BMIs for answers. But this research may help more than amputees. Utilizing BMIs and neuroprostheses can potentially help individuals suffering from neurological disorders that affect brain-to-body connections resulting in functional impairment and/or paralysis.
Looking for Advancements
Advancing functionality for hand/arm prostheses can dramatically help the end-user. The human hand is involved in countless tasks each day and, right now, available prostheses just aren’t cutting the mustard.
That’s a horrible expression. Would up to snuff be better? No. No, I don’t think there is such a thing as a good situation during which the word “snuff” is used. Anyway, let’s take a look at the challenges that prosthetic hand developers face, as per “Proof of Concept…” authors:
One of the main remaining challenges for prosthetic hand developers is in allowing the user to reliably control many different hand movements without too much cognitive effort. Body-powered systems are reliable, but their harness system can result in fatigue and strain. Furthermore, body-powered prostheses are limited in their functionality. Control systems based on electroencephalographic (EEG) signals can be used to control prosthetic hands for above-elbow amputees and paralyzed individuals. However, the implementation of these systems tends to be challenging because EEG signals are associated with many other behaviors besides hand motion, such as proximal musculature involved in hand transport, trunk movement, and so forth. Other methods are being developed to extract signals from within the brain or peripheral nerve tissue, but such methods are invasive and expensive.
And that’s why researchers and developers are turning to myoelectric systems. I’m not a complete dick, so here’s a brief explanation of myoelectric systems. Myoelectric systems focus on the application of myoelectric signals to control human-assisting robots or rehabilitation devices based on electromyographic (EMG) activity of residual muscles following an amputation. We’re starting to get our BMI here.
The authors of “Proof of Concept…” tested the myoelectric control system on the commercially available i-limb from Touch Bionics. They sent commands wirelessly to the prosthesis in which “the integer value of the flexion command was proportional to the predicted flexion force.” The subjects, five males and three female, were all right-handed, able-bodied individuals.
We asked subjects to perform two sets of tasks. […] For both tasks, we recorded EMG signals from five surface EMG electrodes and extracted features from these signals to train a one-against-one support vector machine (SVM). This SVM was used to distinguish hand poses, and a random forest regression (RFR) was used to predict each of the five digit forces.
After this came the EMG decoder system training and testing. There’s a lot of math involved at this point, so I highly recommend you go check it out. If fact, here’s the link again. If you’re determined to stick with me, however, I thank you for your loyalty (and possibly laziness). No judgement.
A large part of this research was digit force prediction, but that alone wouldn’t be helpful. The authors point out that “the EMG-to-force mapping for the middle finger is going to be different for a thumb-middle finger precision grasp versus a closed fist. Incorporating an SVM classifier that distinguishes between hand postures, myoelectric control of hand motion, and individual digit forces for everyday activities becomes more feasible.”
Utilizing myoelectric systems can add an amount of dexterity that current prostheses just can’t touch. This offshoot of BMI can allow for a more responsive and realistic—in movement—hand/arm prosthesis that could allow amputees—or those individuals with partial paralysis—to function in a more natural manner without tapping into the cognitive resources that EEG-signal control systems use.
This is a must read.
Jennie invited me to write a couple of lines for her blog, I feel flattered and honoured, so here we go. Jennie and I “met” on Twitter over the #actuallivingscientists debate. I am a mineralogist from continental Europe, currently mixing magmas for a living as just another Post Doc.
In case you have been living under a rock for the past 6 months: both science and women (and many others) have been target of a brutal onslaught by the new commander in chief, who shall formerly be addressed here as Lord Dampnut. The #actuallivingscientist hashtag was a thread were scientists presented themselves and their work, showing the world that they are real people with awesome gadgets (animals, minerals…). Many female colleagues made a point in posting pictures of themselves wearing specialised suits for lab- and field work, accompanied by the #dresslikeawomen hashtag, to drive home the point that female scientists…
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Idun Verdandi was born in the Ísigstān kingdom. Idun was born a slave in the house of the Vetr Sun, living in the very same castle as the hēahcyning himself. This knowledge was no comfort. Idun had once been told the story of her beginning. Her mother, also a slave, had tried to first hide Idun, then to smuggle her from the castle. Although Idun’s father wasn’t complicit in this act, both he and Idun’s mother were killed. A warning to any who would try to deprive the hēahcyning of his property.
Idun hugged her knees to her chest and leaned her back against the ice-flecked stone wall of her chamber. The other slave girls slept. She could not. The night fevers often interfered with her sleep. Idun raised a thin hand perched atop a thinner arm and brushed her long hair toward the front of her face, making a vail. The silver-white strands making up the first foot of hair from scalp to shoulder looked dull, stringy. The other foot and a half, from shoulder to waist was in worse shape. The black dye, which marked slaves, dried her hair. Turned it brittle.
Ísigstān natives were born with three distinctive traits. The silver-white hair, pale skin, and black irises. These traits were adaptations to the frost-bitten land. The paleness of hair and skin to better hide from natural predators, and black irises that would better protect their eyes from the intensity of the sun. The slaves were made to dye their hair. The more valuable slaves could keep half of the growth—and only half—their natural silver-white. It wouldn’t be long before Idun would have to add more dye.
Another, more permanent demarcation was inflicted on slaves in early childhood. This was the brand that ran from one cheek to the other, curving over the nasal bridge in a turned down crescent shape. Many of the slave children died from the brand.
Idun touched the rough, raised skin before letting her hand fall away. Sleep would take her soon.
She grabbed the piece of cloth she had ripped from her bedding and placed it in her mouth. She let a corner piece of the cloth stay pressed between her lips so that once she awoke, she could yank the rag out. For almost a month, she slept that way. If her night screams ever woke the hēahcyning again, she was told, she’d pay with her flesh.
Idun lay back, almost curling in on herself. As she began to drift, she felt the skin of her arms start to burn, handprint shapes glowing along her biceps.
Every night, this is how it began.
Coming up next:
IDUN: A first look at a brand new character!
If you’re eager to get back to the more scientific blog posts, you don’t have to wait long. Tomorrow we’re going to take a look at whether seeing is really believing, as we discuss how the brain utilizes different sensory inputs to decipher an entire picture.
I took a break from writing a blog for which I’d need to indulge in research. I started today off doing something I had zero desire in ever doing. Or, rather, it began last night. I was driving home, listening to an album. Every time I listen to this album, I feel it building a story. Maybe not the one the musicians are trying to tell, sure, but a story that won’t go untold. It refuses. For months, I’ve resisted. Never, ever, have I had the desire to write anything on the same plane as a work that could be called epic, nor have I had interest in world building. But, what do I know?
I see why Tolkien was so keen on using dead languages. Particularly Old English. It’s beautiful, it’s melodic (an educated guess, on account of it being a… well, a dead language), and it feels epic. So, as I sat down to outline the first few chapters for the first book in this tale, I realized I needed to brush off my Norse sagas, my Old English texts, and my Celtic mythology. I realized this mostly after I spent three hours coming up with a couple of character names and the name of the land the protagonist is from. I must have taken a severe linguistic inflection dump after college.
Sweet, Sweet Resolution
So, I rounded up my linguistics sources, settled on character and (one) place names, and jotted the outline of the first nine chapters for this first installment. It feels great. It feels daunting. It feels terrifying. And boy, I can’t wait until I really get to dig in. I’ve set a happy pace I can keep, because once the outline is done, there’s no stopping the creative juices.
While writing (and editing and touching base with fifty people a day) for a magazine as my day (read: paying) job and writing blogs eat up time, there is an hour per day somewhere in all that for which I can spare a moment of world building, one sentence in a hybrid dead/new language, one action scene or touching moment.
Science is similar to a good book. You latch on to a subject and study it and every time you blink, there’s something new—new research or studies, new medicines, new therapies, new technologies, new, new, new. It’s like opening Ulysses, reading the word “contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality,” and coming up with a new meaning every time. Don’t pretend that’s not your new favorite word.
Over the past decade and a half, there have been scientific breakthroughs in medicine and technology that seem like—or at one point were—science fiction. Isn’t that fantastic? Can the same be said if we move a bit over to the more fantastical side of sci-fi?
Well sure, because…
There is a New Method to Levitate Objects
When I learned this, my first thought was, “There are already levitation methods?” followed closely by, “Jean Grey, here I come.” Right. So, the two means of levitation that physicists were utilizing previously are magnetic levitation and optical levitation. As the names imply, these forms of levitation have their limits—magnetic to magnetized items and optical to objects that can be polarized by light.
Frankie Fung and Mykhaylo Usatyuk, third- and fourth-year UChicago undergrad physics student respectively, must have wanted more. The two led a team of researchers to figure out this new levitation technique, which utilizes a warm plate and cold plate in a vacuum chamber. The way the technique works is:
The bottom copper plate [is] kept at room temperature while a stainless-steel cylinder filled with liquid nitrogen serve[s] as the top plate. The upward flow of heat from the warm to the cold plate [keeps] the particles suspended indefinitely.
As Fung, the study’s lead author, describes it, “The large temperature gradient leads to a force that balances gravity and results in stable levitation. We managed to quantify the thermophoretic force and found reasonable agreement with what is predicted by theory. This will allow us to explore the possibilities of levitating different types of objects.”
The goal of this research, of course, is not to find the answer of how to mimic telekinetic ability, but to explore its usefulness to space applications and “for the study of particle dynamics and interactions in a pristine, isolated environment,” according to the research team’s paper. But, as with any progress in science, third parties can use the research and technique for different purposes.
In a 2008 article in Discover Magazine explaining the claim that parapsychological phenomena are inconsistent with the known laws of physics, Sean Carroll says that “there are only two long-range forces strong enough to influence macroscopic objects—electromagnetism and gravity.” Electromagnetism is limited and impractical, but gravity? That’s getting much closer, considering Fung and Usatyuk’s research.
And, that’s not the only thing giving us a potential look into X-Men remastered, because….
Scientists are Delving into the Mysteries of Time Perception
Time perception is tricky business that scientists currently just have no answers to. It’s a subject being pursued by both journalists and scientists. Maybe one of the most useful pieces of information is that the brain’s clock can be easily swayed by anything from emotion to illness. Take tachypsychia, for example: A perceptual slowing of time during high stress situations. This afflicts many military personnel, first responders, and pro-fighters.
Then there was a series of five experiments done at University College London by Nobuhiro Hagura. Hagura found that our ability to process visual information speeds up as we are preparing to move.
What if we knew what parts of the brain—all signs point to multiple locations—work toward time perception and learned to manipulate our ability to speed up visual information processing? Could we stop time within ourselves long enough to solve problems or figure out a reactionary plan to a bad situation? Could we manufacture a drug we could give to others that would induce in them a stopped-time scenario while we moved about with impunity for the duration the drug was active?
Maybe. The possibilities are endless.
I try to keep on top of trending topics. Short of that, I just shoot for interesting. I think this blog post hits both areas. Let’s get real: When is talking about health (read: diets) not a trending topic? Never? Correct! So, answer these questions:
- Would you change your lifestyle to benefit your brain, or to benefit your body?
- Can you do both?
If your answers were anything other than, “I don’t know, RJ. Tell me more!” then think again! I’m going to tell you more! You see, I’ve always heard, read, and been told by personal trainers that consuming food every three hours or so—whether it’s three meals and three snacks or six small meals, really however you want to break it down—will boost metabolism and is better for your body. From a fitness or weight loss aspect. And, for years, I understood this to be basically universally agreed upon. Then, I watched Neural Stem Cell Researcher Sandrine Thuret’s presentation in the TED Talks series.
So, for those of you that may not be interested in researching neurogenesis, I’ll give you the short of it. Dr. Ananya Mandal, M.D., breaks down neurogenesis in this way:
The term neurogenesis is made up of the words “neuro” meaning “relating to nerves” and “genesis” meaning the formation of something. The term therefore refers to the growth and development of neurons. This process is most active while a baby is developing in the womb and is responsible for the production of the brain’s neurons.
The development of new neurons continues during adulthood in two regions of the brain. Neurogenesis takes place in the subventricular zone (SVZ) that forms the lining of the lateral ventricles and the subgranular zone that forms part of the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus area. The SVZ is the site where neuroblasts are formed, which migrate via the rostral migratory stream to the olfactory bulb. Many of these neuroblasts die shortly after they are generated. However, some go on to be functional in the tissue of the brain.
Evidence suggests that the process is key to functions such as learning and memory. Studies have shown that new neurons increase memory capacity, reduce the overlap between different memories, and also add information regarding time to memories. Other studies have shown that the learning process itself is also linked to the survival of neurons.
That was written back in 2014, before Thuret’s presentation. Now, we can be fairly confident that spacial recognition could be added to Dr. Mandal’s list of key functions aided by neurogenesis. Neurogenesis is good, is what I’m saying. And it’s something that you can control, to a degree, through diet, anaerobic exercise, learning, sex, sleep, etc.
So, where does the body vs brain question come into play, you ask? Well, neurogenesis and fitness have…
Conflicting Views About How and/or When to Restrict Calories
The one thing both neurogenesis and fitness (or weight loss) tips have in common is cutting calories. But, they differ in the how and when of it. As I’ve mentioned, fitness/weight loss tips—such as those from Livestrong and other fitness industry mouthpieces—glorify the grazing method. A method, I might add, that has little to no scientific basis, and thus is not the basically universally agreed upon theory I had thought. Don’t believe me? Ask the NY Times. Don’t believe them? Well, how about Nutrition.org?
It is generally the calorie cutting sometimes paired with grazing that is favorable. The same calorie cutting is desirable to aid in neurogenesis. In a blog published by Stanford University, the argument for dietary restriction (only eating about 70% of the total daily intake) is made. Here’s where we start getting our conflict:
[Dietary Restriction (DR)] is a drastic strategy: it takes tremendous willpower to limit calories to 70% of the normal diet. Furthermore, DR is difficult to implement properly; there is a risk of starvation if the diet is unbalanced, which can have wide-ranging consequences. Luckily, similar effects to DR have been found in mice by simply increasing the amount of time between meals.
Similar results by increasing time between meals, you say? Ok, cool. Let’s explore that further by looking at an article from the journal Neural Plasticity. This article explores the role of diet on neuroplasticity (also called brain plasticity). What we want, specifically, is the role of spacing out meals and how that affects neurogenesis. According to the article:
Many studies suggest that Intermittent Fasting (IF) results in enhancement of brain plasticity and at cellular and molecular level with concomitant improvements in behavior […] Furthermore, the effects of IF following excitotoxic challenge associated with lower levels of corticosterone, lead not only to decreased hippocampal cell death, but also to increased levels of hippocampal BDNF and pCREB and reversal of learning deficits.
“But RJ,” you might be saying. “What does neuroplasticity have to do with neurogenesis and where have my underpants gone?” Well friend, I can’t help you with that second part, but here’s what I’ll do. I’ll give you a wee bit of explanation as to why I included the neuroplasticity bit. Neuroplasticity mainly concerns the strengthening of new or different pathways (or connections) in the brain. That’s an extremely unjust way to describe it, but it’s the simplest.
Neuroplasticity and neurogenesis go hand in hand. Phosphorylated cAMP response-binding element protein (that’s pCREB) promotes brain-derived neurotropic factor (that’s BDNF), “which induces neurogenesis, especially in the hippocampus,” according to Ethan Rosenbaum. “As a result, mice with decreased levels of pCREB or any other promoter of BDNF have decreased spatial navigation skills and decreased memory retention […] due to the neuronal death in the hippocampus.”
Spacial navigation? Memory retention? By God, those are products of neurogenesis! Are you following the cycle? I hope so, because I refuse to hold your sweaty hand. So, which would you change your lifestyle for? Brain, or body?
Well, I sure hope your answer was “both.” Because you can do it.