Archive for: June, 2012

Turning trauma into story: the benefits of journaling

Jun 30 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

For me personally, June has proven to be a rather disappointing and fruitless month. Just when things began to look brighter, I was involuntarily assigned to be the middle vehicle in a double fender-bender two days ago, and my car now needs almost $1,000-worth of repairs. And as a perfect metaphor for the crappiness of the past month, for whatever reason I was not paid my stipend yesterday for the month of June.

I don't often like to talk about my sour feelings with other people because a.) I'm bad at it, and b.) I have another outlet.

Everyday for the past 12 years (save for a few angsty months in 8th grade), I've been writing in a journal. A good, old-fashioned, hardbound, acid-free journal. Most entries are about the frivolous happenings of the day at school, but as I've gotten older, they've increasingly helped me outline my thoughts and feelings while keeping my head on straight.

Feeling so low, I journaled the night before my car accident, listing ten qualities I liked about myself. Remembering what I wrote as I spent the next day at the body shop and on the phone with the police and insurance companies is, I believe, what kept me from simply bursting into tears and throwing up my hands in defeat.

Writing, as many would probably agree, is therapeutic, and studies in the past two decades have explored the health consequences of secrets, expressive language, and the before-and-after physical and psychological symptoms associated with trauma—an area of research referred to as "writing therapy."

Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, is considered to be the pioneer of writing therapy. His basic paradigm for expressive writing experiments remains widely used today:

“For the next 4 days, I would like you to write your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your entire life or an extremely important emotional issue that has affected you and your life. In your writing, I’d like you to really let go and explore your deepest emotions and thoughts. …Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or sentence structure. The only rule is that once you begin writing, you continue until the time is up.”

Many who have followed these simple instructions over the years have seen dramatic changes in their lives. Says Pennebaker, "When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experienced improved health. They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function. If they are first-year college students, their grades tend to go up."

When we experience a traumatic event or major transition in life, our minds function to process and understand what's happening to us. Our thoughts can consume us, keeping us up at night or distracting our performance at work or school.

Translating these experiences into language, however, gives us a physical piece to contemplate, perhaps allowing us to better "grasp" what's going on. In a different but related theory, the ability to construct a story from our experiences may gives us the opportunity to detach ourselves and approach our situation more objectively. Stories may also be better stored in the brain as memories, rather than what may otherwise be a random amalgamation of strong emotions.

Despite these benefits, Pennebaker asserts that we may not necessarily be better off journaling daily about our traumas. "I'm not even convinced that people should write about a horrible event for more than a couple weeks... But standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important."

Of course, people these days need not bring out ye olde quill and parchment like myself to work out their thoughts and emotions. With the expansion of the Internet in the late 1990s came the onslaught of personal blogs (short for "web logs")—everything from the traditional (a la Blogger and WordPress) to the microblog (Twitter) to the highly share-able Tumblr format. It is estimated that there are over 170 million blogs in existence.

The prevalence of digitized thoughts, feelings, emotions, and experiences has given researchers a new tool for tracking changes in society on a massive scale. Most famously, a study published in Science back in September asserted that individuals are happiest in the morning, but the feeling deteriorates as the day progresses—consistent, they say, with the effects of sleep and circadian rhythm. Golder and Macy aggregated data from millions of public Twitter messages, using computer software to detect positive words ("awesome," "agree") and negative words ("hate," "annoy") as well as smiling and frowning faces ("emoticons"). This type of study, as expected, has received much grief for "not actually being scientific."

In a 2004 study published in Psychological SciencePennebaker and colleagues were among the first researchers to explore the power of written expression during psychological distress using a similar mass-blogging data analysis. The researchers downloaded LiveJournal entries of 1,084 public blogs for four months—two months prior to and two months after the September 11 attacks. This method also allowed them to collect age, gender, and location information based on information from their public profiles. Using the text analysis program Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), each word in the 78,000 entries analyzed was checked against a dictionary of 2,300 words and characterized by four basic categories: emotional positivity, cognitive processing, social orientation, and psychological distancing.

Pennebaker found that shortly after the 9/11 attacks (less than two weeks), the blogs expressed significantly more negative emotions and were written with greater psychological distancing. After two weeks, the writers' "moods" returned to baseline (two months before the attacks), but psychological distancing remained elevated over six weeks. Although all effects were stronger for individuals highly preoccupied with 9/11 (i.e. those shown to blatantly write about the events more often), comparable language changes were seen overall.

Although this analysis method is still relatively new and flawed, it shows promise for real-time tracking of response to drastic changes as they naturally unfold, providing a continuous timeline on a massive and diverse scale. This study in particular demonstrates the ability for humans to affiliate more during periods of threat as well as a—perhaps unconscious—concern of individual victims, their community, and/or the entire nation. While zero entries revealed writers' feelings of involvement with a large social group (such as a city or country) before the attacks, 44% of post-9/11 entries did.

Journaling is a powerful tool, whether one does it privately to collect their thoughts, or publicly with the hopes of syndicating to or receiving advice from others. Beyond the therapeutic advantages, I am mostly excited to pass down a physical time capsule of my often-pathetic scrawls and doodlings to my descendants, a sentiment likely derived from my love of the fictional Dear America books. It's also quite fun to look back and see what I was doing on this day a year ago, five years, or ten years ago.

In the meantime, I'll just keeping doing my thing, writing it down, and hope July goes much more smoothly than June!

Cohn MA, Mehl MR, & Pennebaker JW (2004). Linguistic markers of psychological change surrounding September 11, 2001. Psychological science, 15 (10), 687-93 PMID: 15447640

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Friday Photo Fun

Jun 29 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I had plans to write a new post yesterday about a topic that is very near and dear to my heart, but unfortunately life got in the way (more on that tomorrow).

For today, I will introduce a concept that I like to do for my blog's Facebook page, which is a "Friday Photo Fun" (sometimes "Friday Fun Fact") segment. And what better than photos of the brain? My brain?!

Last month, I participated in a brain imaging study! I laid in an MRI machine for 45 minutes and looked at pictures of chocolate while smelling chocolate odors. Tough life, right? (Hershey really is the sweetest place on Earth...even in the labs!)

The MRI machine is rather big, rather loud (I wore headphones), and...rather claustrophobic—but it operates on a rather GENIUS principle! My brain was imaged every two seconds; eventually, the images will be overlaid to create a complete picture of my brain, so it was important that I remain very still.

Some of you may have undergone an MRI so a doctor could examine a particular body part due to injury or to diagnose a problem. The MRI machine works on the principle of magnetism; essentially, the images you're seeing are comprised of the nuclei of the atoms in your body.

The protons of the nucleus (shown in green) are positively-charged. When exposed to the very powerful magnet of the MRI machine, the protons of your atoms become aligned with the direction of the magnetic field.

A radio frequency transmitter is repeatedly turned on and off, which produces an electromagnetic field and causes the protons to spin in the opposite direction. This change causes a radio frequency signal to be generated, and is detected by coils in the machine.

Contrary to popular belief, the MRI is a very safe procedure that does not give off ionic radiation (like X-rays).

The images are taken in slices beginning from the outside and working its way in—that's why my brain structures look smaller or bigger in some areas, and why my nose doesn't show up until the end. And now, without further ado, the brains behind 'Gaines, on Brains':

Eventually, when the lab technicians overlay these images, they will be able to create a 3D image of my entire brain, which will look something like this:

Pretty cool, huh?

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Seeing into the future? The neuroscience of déjà vu

Jun 27 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

The following post was a semifinalist in the 3 Quarks Daily 2012 Science Prize judged by Sean M. Carroll.

Even the most rational of us experience it: you'll be chatting with friends or exploring a place you've never been when suddenly a feeling washes over you: you've experienced this exact moment before. The familiarity is overwhelming, and it shouldn't be familiar at all. The sensation becomes stronger before ebbing, then completely leaves, all within a matter of seconds. Had you predicted the future? Yet, chances are, you can't pinpoint exactly when you'd experienced that premonition before.

Déjà vu is a French term that literally means "already seen" and is reported to occur in 60-70% of people, most commonly between the ages of 15 and 25. The fact that déjà vu occurs so randomly and rapidly—and in individuals without a medical condition—makes it difficult to study, and why and how the phenomenon occurs is up to much speculation. Psychoanalysts may attribute it to wishful thinking; some psychiatrists cite mismatching in the brain causing us to mistake the present for the past. Still, parapsychologists may even believe it is related to a past-life experience. So what do we know forcertain about what happens during an episode of déjà vu?

Some researchers speculate that déjà vu occurs when there is a mismatch in the brain during its constant attempt to create whole perceptions of our world with very limited input. Think about your memory: it only takes small bits of sensory information (a familiar smell, for instance) to bring forth a very detailed recollection. Déjà vu is suggested to be some sort of "mix-up" between sensory input and memory-recalling output. This vague theory, however, does not explain why the episode we experience is not necessarily from a true past event.

A different but related theory states that déjà vu is a fleeting malfunctioning between the long- and short-term circuits in the brain. Researchers postulate that the information we take in from our surroundings may "leak out" and incorrectly shortcut its way from short- to long-term memory, bypassing typical storage transfer mechanisms. When a new moment is experienced—which is currently in our short-term memory—it feels as though we're drawing upon some memory from our distant past.

A similar hypothesis suggests that déjà vu is an error in timing; while we perceive a moment, sensory information may simultaneously be re-routing its way to long-term storage, causing a delay and, perhaps, the unsettling feeling that we've experienced the moment before.

One characteristic is common of all déjà vu experiences: we are completely conscious that they are occurring, implying that participation of the entire brain is not necessary to produce the phenomenon.

Over the years, researchers have pinpointed disturbances of the medial temporal lobe as the culprit behind déjà vu. Studies of epileptic patients investigated via intracerebral electrodes demonstrate that stimulation of the rhinal cortex (such as the entorhinal and perirhinal cortices—structures involved in episodic memory and sensory processing) can actually induce a déjà vu episode.

Ventral (bottom) view of the brain, showing the perirhinal (red) and entorhinal (yellow) cortices.

A study published in the March issue of Clinical Neurophysiology analyzed the patterns of electroencephalography (EEG) signals from the rhinal cortices, hippocampus (involved in memory formation), and amygdala (involved in emotion) in epileptic patients for whom déjà vu could be induced by electrical stimulation.

The researchers (from France!—who better?) found that synchronized neural firing between the rhinal cortices and the hippocampus or amygdala were increased in stimulations that induced déjà vu. This suggests that some sort of coincident occurrence in medial temporal lobe structures may "trigger" activation of the recollection system.

While the cause and precise mechanism of déjà vu remains a mystery, worry not—if it happens, nothing is wrong with you. In fact, bask in the moment and appreciate the strange feeling that washes over you. Or pretend to be a fortune teller.

"It's like déjà vu all over again." -Yogi Berra, on witnessing Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris repeatedly hit back-to-back home runs in the early 1960s Yankees' seasons.

Bartolomei F, Barbeau EJ, Nguyen T, McGonigal A, Régis J, Chauvel P, & Wendling F (2012). Rhinal-hippocampal interactions during déjà vu. Clinical neurophysiology : official journal of the International Federation of Clinical Neurophysiology, 123 (3), 489-95 PMID: 21924679

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Ecstasy: "safe"?

Jun 26 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

The following is a post I had written last week in response to British Columbia's top health official announcing that pure ecstasy (MDMA) is "safe."

Call me a prude, but I'm not so thrilled about the announcement made on June 14 by British Columbia's top health official that ecstasy is "safe."

Dr. Perry Kendall asserted that the health risks of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine—or MDMA, the active ingredient in the drug ecstasy—are exaggerated, and that pure ecstasy is not dangerous when consumed responsibly by adults.

Its lethal dangers arise, he says, when gangs pollute the drug with other chemicals.

I'm not sure when the notion came into play that anything which doesn't kill you automatically means its "safe," but I would like to respectfully debunk Dr. Kendall's remarks with a very powerful and striking study published 13 years ago.


Ecstasy, best known for its recreational use among the "rave" scene, can induce euphoria, diminished anxiety, and a sense of intimacy with others.

Specifically, MDMA induces release of the neurotransmitter serotonin by causing serotonin-containing vesicles to dock and enter the synapse. Higher-than-normal serotonin levels can result in neurotoxicity in the brain.

What, exactly, causes the euphoria from MDMA is not entirely clear; other drugs that release serotonin, such as fenfluramine, do not have this effect.

Remember those old "Just Say No" PSAs from the late '80s championed by First Lady Nancy Reagan? "This is drugs." An egg cracks into a sizzling skillet. "This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?" The commercials were short, memorable, and got the point across, albeit lacking scientific support. Who cares about thescience with such a powerful visual, anyway?

How's this for a scientific visual: in 1999, the Journal of Neuroscience published a study by Johns Hopkins researchers examining the effects of short-term MDMA use on the brain over the long-term. In other words, can a single weekend of hard partying result in deficits years down the road?

Hatzidimitriou and colleagues injected 5 mg/kg MDMA (pure MDMA—just as Dr. Kendall assures is "safe") in squirrel monkeys subcutaneously twice a day for four days. That's about the equivalent of an average 150 lb. person consuming 3 ecstasy tablets per day.

The researchers then examined serotonergic neurons (neurons that release serotonin) in the cortex of the brain over time by staining the cells with an antibody for visualization. The results were astounding:

Two weeks after just four days of ecstasy use, there is a highly significant reduction of serotonergic neurons in the cortex (middle panel) compared to control. Terrifying, right? It gets worse. Just look at the effects after seven years of recovery (right panel)—still a marked reduction in neurons.

Short-term physiological effects of MDMA include increased heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature; blurred vision; sweating; loss of appetite; nausea; and jaw-clenching. Overdose can cause paranoia, hallucinations, hemorrhage, fainting, and organ failure.

Sure sounds like "ecstasy" lives up to its name, right?

Currently, clinical trials are testing the therapeutic potential for controlled MDMA in anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the anxiety associated with terminal cancer.

Dr. Kendall's statement comes after a string of 16 death in British Columbia since last July associated with a tainted batch of ecstasy containing the toxin PMMA. The health official wants to explore legalization of the drug, asserting that he is "quite a strong critic of prohibition" in that it doesn't do "much to reduce harmful use" or put "billions of dollars into the hands of criminal enterprises."

On a socio-economic level, he has a point. Ecstasy is safe?

Let's make sure citizens are getting the facts before we tell them what they want to hear.

* Note: Ricaurte's research has received criticism for his methodologies. In 2003, four of his studies were revealed to have administered methamphetamine instead of MDMA due to a mislabeled purchase, but the particular experiment I presented here was not among them. I welcome any other comments and insight regarding Ricuarte's MDMA studies.

Hatzidimitriou G, McCann UD, & Ricaurte GA (1999). Altered serotonin innervation patterns in the forebrain of monkeys treated with (+/-)3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine seven years previously: factors influencing abnormal recovery. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 19 (12), 5096-107 PMID: 10366642

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Gaines, on Brains...on Scientopia!

Jun 25 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Hello Scientopia! My name is Jordan Gaines, perhaps better known as "Gaines, on Brains."

Actually, that may be an overstatement. You see, I'm still pretty new to the science blogging world.

It was only about a year ago now when I learned that science writing is a thing—in that people reporting last night's baseball scores aren't the necessarily the same people detailing the latest Alzheimer's breakthroughs or discussing global warming. I mean, sometimes they are the same people—and that's where the frustration with science journalism (bad science journalism) begins.

That, coupled with the fact that a rift still exists between the Ivory Towers and the average layperson, is what drove me to start my neuroscience-without-the-jargon blog "Gaines, on Brains."

Without further ado, a few introductory factoids about myself:

  • I'm entering my 2nd year of a Ph.D. program in Neuroscience at Penn State. I became interested in the Sleep Research and Treatment Center associated with the hospital here—so while I have not officially picked a thesis lab yet, I've definitely been honing in on the sleep stuff.
  • I define myself by the things I love, which include, but are not limited to: dogs, rowing, books, Harry Potter, clarinet-ing, the Beatles, and cake. (In regards to the latter, it's mostly because of the frosting [buttercream, not whipped]).
  • I'm 5'10"—so pretty tall for a chick—but I'm also related to the shortest U.S. President in history. James Madison stood a towering 5'4".

I look forward to guest-blogging here for the next two weeks. I would like to extend a thank-you to Jason Goldman from SciAm's The Thoughtful Animal for nominating me to be here.

In the meantime, please feel free to connect with me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, or check out my blog Gaines, on Brains to get a feel for my writing.

Happy Monday!

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A KISS for communicating science

Jun 04 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Keep it simple stupid.

Four little words. So much wisdom.

Originally it was intended as a design principle for engineers at Lockheed Skunk Works. The basic idea was that the more sophisticated a design, the more likely something would go wrong, and the more difficult it would be to fix.

Although originated for applications, scientists can learn from this maxim too. Not only is there something to be said for reducing complexity in research but for bringing simplicity t0 how we communicate research.

You may perhaps recall my last post here at Scientopia and think, "Yes, of course! When we're talking science with non-scientists, we should simplify our pitch." It seems obvious, but it proves difficult for many. Science is so filled with jargon that Carl Zimmer started The Index of Banned Words for those who were learning to write about science for lay audiences to learn "to explain science in plain yet elegant English".

But there's more to it than that.

Keep it simple stupid.

The KISS principle is not about simplicity for simplicity's sake. Kelly Johnson, the first Skunk Works leader, was asking the engineers to think of those who would be working on their products in the field, their skill level, and the tools they would have available.

Scientific jargon is extraordinarily field- and even subfield-dependent. Yet many questions can no longer be confined to defined niches, and the principles and approaches are increasingly interdisciplinary (sorry, Carl 😉 ).

I am a biochemist, but my work strays occasionally into biophysics. I regularly work alongside a pharmacologist and an immunologist. Some days I'm collaborating with computer scientists and statisticians. On various projects, I have interacted with cell biologists, chemists, cancer biologists, and physiologists. Currently I'm trying to address a challenge in my research. The approaches that could potentially provide a solution have been used in very different applications for research at a much larger scale (literally), and I found myself writing a research summary for astrophysicists.

The people with whom I interact are intelligent and highly educated. But we don't always speak the same scientific language nor have we learned the same principles that form the foundations of our respective fields. Yet we still have to communicate. Each time I describe my research, I must consider: What is a reasonable expectation of their knowledge in this area? What matters to them? What is the most important thing I need them to understand? In other words, I need to think about the objective of this interaction and what skills and tools the other party has available. This is equally important in interactions with scientists and non-scientists.

Keep it simple stupid.

An implicit element of this maxim is efficiency. Have you ever noted the amount of superfluous and complex wording we add to our writing?

Of note, [event A] causes a change in [process B] that is proposed to result from the phenomenon of [thing C], which would be observed as an augmentation of [output Z] if [experiment X] was conducted with [modification Y].

Don't roll your eyes - you know you've seen something this egregious in a paper. If we're honest, every one of us has probably produced such a tortured sentence at some point in our careers. (Hopefully it happened early on and was quickly beaten out of us, but not all souls are so fortunate.)

Even native English speakers can contort word choice and sentence structure, making our writing painful to read. Hell, native English speakers might even be worse because our years of knowledge and experience provide the ability to convolute the simplest statement. Sometimes we're trying to avoid the use of "we"Or we feel an ingrained need to use the passive voice. Other times, we seem to think more "sophisticated" language somehow makes our writing more appealing. The truth is, complicated writing can obscure the most elegant experiments and striking data.

Keep it simple stupid.

But we mustn't confuse efficiency with brevity. Brevity is only efficient if the point remains clear and accurate.

We can easily fall into a pattern of describing things with concise, regular structures. This can be a good thing (think flow). But sometimes we come to a discussion point that doesn't fit the rhythm, and we still try to cram it into the same meter. There are times when a piece of information is so rich, we (and our audience) are better served by breaking it into pieces, giving attention to one facet before progressing to the next. Suddenly the story becomes much more melodic.

Keep it simple stupid.

Everyone has something competing for their attention: an upcoming grant on the mind, a timer for an experiment going off, kids playing, figuring out what's for dinner, trying to recall whether you turned off that piece of equipment ... The clearer the message, the more likely it is to rise above the noise.

And besides, no one likes to be made to feel like an idiot - not your colleagues, your collaborators, your supervisors, (sure as hell) your grant and manuscript reviewers, your friends, your family, or the public at large.

We can make our lives and theirs easier by removing unnecessary complexity from communication. And who knows? We might even find we're rewarded for it.

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