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The Complexity Matters blog features the Thursday Complexity Post as well as other complexity inspired news items.


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Wisdom: An Emergent Property Rooted in Biology

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 27, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Economists and psychologists studying human contentment have found a recurrent pattern in countries across the world. People report that life satisfaction declines in the first couple of decades of adulthood, hits bottom around age 50, then rises with age, often above the levels people felt in their 20s. The pattern, which emerges with regularity in large data sets, is called the U-curve of happiness.

Jonathan Rauch, in a provocative article in The Atlantic, describes recent research, interviews the social scientists who conducted it, and presents an intriguing possibility: there may be some underlying pattern of life satisfaction that is independent of economic status, work and career achievement and personal relationships. He says David Blanchflower of Dartmouth and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick found the U-curve in 55 of 80 countries where people were asked about their general life satisfaction. The nadir was, on average, age 46. Other researchers who conducted surveys in 80 countries found a similar curve and the average age of rock bottom dissatisfaction was 50. Examining statistics from 27 European countries, Blanchflower and Oswald found that antidepressant use peaks in the late 40s, and that being middle aged nearly doubles the likelihood that a person will take antidepressants.

Oswald and four other scientists, including two primatologists, even found a U-curve over time in the state of mind of chimpanzees and orangutans. Zoo keepers, animal researchers and caretakers were surveyed about the well-being of more than 500 captive primates in five countries and reported that well-being was at its lowest in ages that would be comparable to ages 45 to 50 in people. So biology may play some part in middle age doldrums.

The good news is the upswing on the U-curve when studies show people tend to become more optimistic as they age. Rauch points to research by Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen and others who say "the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade." Carstensen told Rauch that as people age, their time horizons get shorter, they focus more on the present, and their goals tend to be more concerned with meaning and savoring the moment. They pay less attention to regrets and unmet desires.

Rauch also interviewed Dilip V. Jeste, a psychiatrist with multiple titles at University of California at San Diego, who has studied the aging brain to find clues for how people age successfully even with the onset of chronic health conditions that might be expected to make them depressed. Jeste explains that as a native of India he grew up in a culture steeped in respect for wisdom, and concepts about wisdom, he says, are remarkably constant across time and geography. The traits of the wise, Rauch summarizes, include empathy, compassion, good social reasoning, tolerance of diverse views, and comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity. Jeste sees wisdom as an emergent property of many other functions, with its roots in biology and evolution. Wisdom gives societal function to people who are no longer fertile. He's also looking for clues in neuroscience. While the science of wisdom is in its infancy, Jeste suspects age may change the human brain in ways that make wisdom easier.

So if you're experiencing mid-life distress, take heart in the likelihood that the future will get better.

As Andrew Oswald observes in a New York Times story, "It's a very encouraging fact that we can expect to be happier in our early 80s than we were in our 20s. And it's not being driven predominantly by things that happen in life. It's something very deep and quite human that seems to be driving this." Read Rauch's piece here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  neuroscience 

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Earthquakes, Forest Fires, Stars and Brains

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, April 10, 2014

Human brain activities that give rise to thinking may be akin to the dynamics of earthquakes, forest fires, the spread of contagious disease, the distribution of galaxies in the universe and the sand in an hourglass.

Flip an hour glass upside down, and sand running into the bottom of the glass forms a pile that eventually becomes so unstable that one more grain can cause the pile to collapse into an avalanche. When that happens, the base of the sand pile flattens out, another pile begins, and then it too reaches a point where it collapses. Through several avalanches of varying sizes, the sand pile maintains overall stability. It's a process Danish-American scientist Per Bak called "self organized criticality."

When he died in 2002, The New York Times described Dr. Bak as an "intellectually pugnacious physicist who sought to understand how complexity arises in the world," and how the simple particles that make up the universe could be transformed into the extraordinarily intricate order found in nature. A story by Jennifer Ouellette in Quanta Magazine and reprinted in the Scientific American, explains that Dr. Bak found an answer in phase transition, the process in which materials pass from one state to another. The phase change of water to steam, for example, depends only on temperature and air pressure. Ouellette explains Dr. Bak proposed phase change in which local interactions among many elements of a complex system could spontaneously self organize to reach the tipping point he called criticality. In a 1987 paper in Physical Review Letters, Dr. Bak and coauthors described self organized criticality as the underlying mechanism behind the flow of rivers, the luminosity of stars, and what happens in sand piles and other dynamical systems. His book How Nature Works expands on the idea.

Neuroscientists didn't immediately embrace Dr. Bak's idea on brain function when he proposed it 15 years ago. In the last decade, however, EEG recordings of the interactions among individual brain neurons, large scale studies comparing computer model predictions and fMRI images, and examinations of slides of cortical tissue, have produced evidence that the brain exhibits properties of criticality. Neurophysiologist Dante Chialvo, from the University of California at Los Angeles, is among the renowned scientists who now think self organized criticality could explain brain activity. The idea is also being explored by national and international research efforts.

Getting back to the hour glass. Ouellette explains that when the sand pile-a complex system with millions of tiny elements-reaches the critical point, there is no way to predict which next grain will cause the avalanche, how big any avalanche will be, or how many there will be before all the sand is in the bottom of the glass. The things you can predict are that the falling of one extremely tiny grain can have a big impact; and that while overall stability of the system is maintained-there's still a pile-and there will be more small avalanches than big ones, in line with what mathematicians call power laws.

The exact moment of transition in a phase change is the critical point when the system is half way between one phase and the next. Each of the tens of billions of neurons in our brains, their connections and their interactions, produce "the emergent process we call thinking," the Quanta article says. It goes on to say that Dr. Bak's idea "implies that most of the time, the brain teeters on the edge of a phase transition, hovering between order and disorder."

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature  neuroscience  science 

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Dance and a "Talent for Unconscious Entrainment"

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, April 3, 2014

What is happening in that mysterious space between people who discover they have fine interpersonal chemistry?

tango dancers Suzanne Dikker, a cognitive neuroscientist at New York University, hopes dancing holds clues. She is using dance to investigate human brainwave synchronization and learn how it can happen. "NeuroTango" was hosted recently by the Greater New York City Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience as part of its Brain Awareness Week. It was also an opportunity for Dikker to get pairs of tango dancers to wear EEG headsets to measure their brain waves as they danced and thought about dancing. A story by Eli Chen describes Dikker's experiment.

Couples who were experienced dancing partners danced to music as they usually would. They then switched partners, so they were dancing with a new partner or someone less familiar. Next, they stood still with their original partners and imagined dancing. Dikker projected graphics onto the walls, showing when dancers' brains were in sync, and not. Other studies have shown that experienced dancers coordinate their movement differently from novices, and that both dancing and mentally rehearsing the dance stimulate similar brain activity.

Dikker said she is using the tango because the dancers perform fast, intricate movements that require exceptional coordination and the need to anticipate each other's every step, sway and twirl. In addition, leaders and followers have different mental tasks. She also hopes to learn whether the EEG can reliably measure brain activities of people who are moving. The Scientist story says Dikker had worked with Marina Abramovic on "Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze," at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow in 2011. In that event, designed to examine empathy and nonverbal communication, Amramovic and volunteers sitting opposite her gazed into each other's eyes while EEG headsets captured their brain activities. In that case, the subjects were stationary.

Lawrence Parsons, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Sheffield, did a neuroimaging study of dancers in 2008. An article he co-authored for the Scientific American says coordinated dancing may not occur anywhere in the animal kingdom except among humans. "Our talent for unconscious entrainment lies at the core of dance, a confluence of movement, rhythm and gestural representation," the article says. "By far the most synchronized group practice, dance demands a type of interpersonal coordination in space and time that is almost nonexistent in other social contexts."

Lewis Hou, a research associate at the University of Edinburgh, is studying what happens in the brains of Scottish folk dancers as they perform. He praises NeuroTango as excellent science communication and a good way to engage the public in neuroscience. Hou will be participating in a science festival this April in Edinburgh where the dance performances will be partnered with scientific explorations.

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

From "Among School Children" by William Butler Yeats

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  music  neuroscience  research 

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Bird Brains and Ram Horns: Clues on Concussions

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 9, 2014

Woodpeckers bang their heads into the hard wood of trees thousands of times a day, and yet there is no evidence they get concussions. Long horn rams bash their heads together in frequent rituals that involve collisions at speeds of 20 to 40 miles an hour, and they don't seem to suffer brain damage either. Do these animals offer clues about protecting the brains of athletes?

The incidence of concussions among high school athletes has grown, and concern about safety has been fueled by continuing revelations from retired professional football players who suffered repeated head injuries before onset of the degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates as many as 3.8 million people a year suffer from sports related traumatic brain injuries.

Materials scientist Ainissa G. Ramirez, PhD, coauthor of Newton's Football: The Science Behind America's Game, quotes materials scientist and MIT Professor Lorna Gibson in a Huffington Post piece about woodpecker brains. Gibson, who has studied woodpeckers, explains, "It's a scaling phenomenon." A woodpecker brain is only about two grams-the mass of two paperclips, compared with a human brain, which averages about 1,400 grams. The lighter the brain, the better it will survive impact, Ramirez writes. She adds by way of explanation that if you drop a cell phone on the floor it will probably not be damaged, but a lap top dropped from the same height may need serious repair. Further, woodpecker brains are oriented at a 90 degree angle so that head-on force is widely distributed, and they fit snugly inside the skull with little room to slosh around.

LiveScience writer Stephanie Pappas gives even more detail. Researchers have found woodpeckers have thick neck muscles that diffuse blows, and a third inner eyelid that prevents the birds' eyes from popping out during repetitious hammering. The thick spongy bone surrounding the woodpecker brain has tiny projections that form a mineral mesh, Pappas writes, suggesting a microstructure that may act as armor for the brain. And she reports Chinese researchers have found the woodpecker's beak may have a microstructure designed to absorb impact rather than transferring it toward the brain.

Rams are big animals with big brains. What makes their head butting benign? Ramirez got some clues from Dr. Andrew Farke, a paleontologist who has studied dinosaurs. Ram's horn is porous bone covered with keratin, an elastic protein material that allows horns to give a little under impact. In addition to distributing the impact of the force, the flexible horn also lengthens the duration of the impact, which lessens the force. Writing in The New York Times, Gregory D. Meyer, PhD, director of Sports Medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, says big horn sheep also have mechanisms that slow the return of blood from the head to the body, increasing the blood volume that fills their brains' vascular tree. In effect, both woodpeckers and rams have brains protected by the physiological equivalent of Bubble Wrap.

Our brains don't fill our skulls, we risk concussions when our brains smack up against our skulls during sudden stops, starts and the collisions of contact sports. Meyers writes that football helmets have reduced fractured skulls, but haven't prevented concussions, because they don't protect what happens inside the skull. Ramirez suggests more research on how materials absorb force could make helmets better. Temperature studies also suggest new possibilities.

Meyers and colleagues at the Colorado School of Public Health found that high school football players who played at higher altitudes had 30 percent fewer concussions. The researchers studied records of athletes in multiple sports from 497 high schools where altitude ranged from seven feet to 6,903 feet, and found all athletes who played at altitudes over 600 feet had 31 percent fewer concussions. "We hypothesize that higher altitude increased the volume of the cerebral venous system, a natural Bubble Wrap that surrounds the brain," and gives it a tighter fit inside the skull, Meyers wrote in The Times. While athletes can't play every game in Denver, he wrote, improved brain safety may come from more research on the biomechanics animals already have in use.

Photo credits: Sid Hamm and National Wildlife Federation

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature  neuroscience  research  resilience 

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What Lights Up Our Brains as We Learn and Work

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, October 25, 2013

When people say their hearts are broken and their feelings are hurt, their expressions may be more than metaphor. Scientists have discovered that social pain is just as real as physical pain, and in fact can be eased by painkillers.

Researchers have found that cruel words and social rejection registers in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the same brain region where physical pain is processed. For Matthew Lieberman, PhD, a professor of psychology and director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at UCLA, that's a strong indication that our need for social connection is ancient and hard-wired.

"The existence of social pain is a sign that evolution has treated social connection like a necessity, not a luxury," he says. In a Scientific American interview with Gareth Cook, Lieberman emphasizes that because of the way social pain and pleasure are "wired into our operating systems," the need to connect with others is urgent and compelling. Studies of mammals, from small rodents to humans, show that social connections shape us and that we suffer seriously when our social bonds are threatened or broken.

Brain research has direct implications for the way we structure organizations, institutions, and businesses, and the way we raise and educate children, Lieberman says.

He says fMRI studies show the brain has two distinct networks that support social and non social thinking. They operate like a neural seesaw, he explains, with one network quieting down as the other intensifies. When we finish with a non-social thought process, such as solving a math problem, the social thinking network is instantly reactivated as a default. That's the network operating when we're trying to understand the thoughts, feelings and goals of other people, and not just their actions.

Lieberman observes business leaders should realize that praise and an environment free from physical threats are powerful incentives just as money and material benefits are. "It is social comfort that allows us to make the most of our environment," he says: when we care, we work harder, complement each other's strengths and weaknesses more, and use our natural capacities better.

Brain science also offers new clues for education, Lieberman says. As he explains in a webinar on the Social Brain and Its Superpowers, experiments have shown that affirmation and rejection have profound consequences. When two groups of participants experienced either affirmation or rejection and then took IQ and GRE tests, those rejected had dramatically lower scores. Some 40 percent of kids say they have endured bullying-physical, verbal or cyber-he observes, and the impact can linger. "A kid who broke his leg on the playground wouldn't be expected to return to class and do math," he says, "but a kid who has been bullied is expected to be able to set that feeling aside." He thinks mindfulness training, and learning how to engage the brain's self control mechanisms, may build resilience to social pain.

Work at the Lieberman Lab shows that we learn best with the social parts of our brains, not with the parts activated to memorize, he says. The social brain network is in play when we take in new information, and some research has shown that our brains light up when we absorb information that we think will interest others. As he puts it, we like to be Information DJs. Lieberman wants more research on the use of learning in order to teach. "We ought to be doing much more peer learning," he told Scientific American. "My ideal situation would be a 14-year-old who has trouble in the classroom being assigned to teach a 12-year-old. The teacher then becomes a coach helping to teach the 12-year-old and the 14-year-old will reap the benefits of pro-social learning." Lieberman is the author of the book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. Access his webinar and the Scientific American story here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  neuroscience 

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Secrets in Our Sense of Scent

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 3, 2013

Do you smell the roses? Lilacs in spring rain? The alarming odors of things burning or rotting? The answer may be more important than you think. Scientists are discovering that an impaired sense of smell is one of the earliest signs of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative diseases.


The Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology has endorsed smell testing as an aid to the diagnoses of these diseases, writes Richard L. Doty, though such testing is still not routinely performed in neurology clinics. In an article in The Scientist, Doty, director of the Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, describes recent research that shows difficulty smelling - a condition called hyposmia - is often an important early warning signal. He cites a pioneering study by Amy Bornstein Graves and colleagues at the University of South Florida who administered smell tests to 1,604 senior citizens who had no symptoms of dementia. Overall, people who had no sense of smell and one genetic risk factor for dementia were five times more likely to develop cognitive decline in the next two years than people whose sense of smell was not impaired. Further, Doty notes, the smell test was more predictive than cognitive test scores.


Doty, who has developed smell and taste tests, writes that olfactory test results can help doctors with diagnosis and treatment. Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases (AD and PD) are often misdiagnosed in patients suffering from other afflictions, including severe depression or supranuclear palsy, which are not accompanied by loss of smell and are not helped by drugs used to treat AD and PD. In some patients with mild AD, he adds, smell tests can indicate responsiveness to a drug that does improve cognitive function in some patients.


Is olfactory dysfunction the result of damage that comes with neurodegenerative diseases, or does loss of smell precede the damage? Can damage to the olfactory system induce disease in those disposed to neurodegenerative disorders? Doty says further research is needed to answer those questions, and further an understanding of the relationship between smell and health. Watch Doty's slide presentation on the sense of smell. He begins it with a picture of a Lady and the Unicorn tapestry showing the lady weaving a garland of carnations to illustrate the sense of smell. Five of the fifteenth century tapestries depict the five senses and a sixth is believe to represent love or understanding. 


Doty's article is one of several in The Scientist issue devoted to examining our sense of smell. Another by Ron Yu discusses pheromones. These elusive molecules, and the scents associated with them, are known to influence mating and other behavior in insects and some mammals. When it comes to human behavior, there's disagreement. If pheromones do exist in humans, the molecular machinery that would make them work is not clear. There is also evidence that smells can leave afterimages in the brain, even after the stimulus is no longer present, that influence memory. Marcel Proust, remembering the madeleines of his childhood, wrote that tastes and smells of the past "remain poised a long time, like souls, ..."


"Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived." Helen Keller

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  neuroscience 

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How Nurture Changes Nature

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 4, 2013
Updated: Monday, July 8, 2013
The traumatic experiences of our own past and even the adversities and deprivations of ancestors can leave inheritable molecular scars that negatively influence behavior, personality and physical health later in life, many scientists believe.

A story by Dan Hurley in Discover Magazine, describes research by Moshe Szyf, molecular biologist, pharmacologist and geneticist at McGill University and Michael Meaney, a McGill neurobiologist. Their new findings in behavioral epigenetics not only hold promise for unraveling the impact of the past, but suggest profound new possibilities for treatments to heal the damage done by both recent and ancient suffering.

They have found what seems to be evidence of a chain of connection from experience to changes in gene expression in the brain to behavior. Behavioral epigenetics is a new but fast-growing field that has generated some skepticism. See a story by Lizzie Buchen in for a range of views. Szyf says a different mindset in neuroscience is needed-a focus on molecular modification in the cell molecules rather than on inter-neural circuitry and anatomy. While genes are inherited and stay the same throughout life, Szyf explains, outside factors such as diet, toxins, and social factors such as abuse, stress and extreme poverty can set off chemical changes in the nucleus of cells that changes the way genes are expressed. When stimulated, an arrangement of molecules called a methyl group attaches itself to the control center of the gene and turns it off. The gene function changes, but the DNA doesn't.

Szyf has spent years studying DNA methylation. He and Meaney studied the brains of rats raised by attentive mother rats who groomed them frequently, and neglectful rat mothers who didn't. In the brains of badly-mothered rats, the genes regulating reaction to stress were highly methylated, and the rats were nervous wrecks. And when those pups grew up, they too were inattentive to their babies.

In the offspring of good mother rats, those genes were rarely methylated, and the rats were calm. In a second experiment, to show the changes were behaviorally induced, the rat pups born to bad mothers were given to the good mother rats to raise, and those born to good mother given to bad moms. The well raised rats with the biochemical capacity to manage stress were calm and brave. The poorly raised rats were behaviorally difficult. With no changes to their genetic code, the neglected rats had gained inheritable changes-the addition of methyl groups that alter brain function-solely because of their childhood experiences.

In another extraordinary experiment, Szyf and Meaney infused the brains of badly raised rats with a drug that removes methyl groups, and the animals then showed none of the behavioral deficits typical of their group.

Brains of living people can't be sampled, but blood samples are common. Szyf looked for epigenetic markers of methylated genes in the blood of 40 male study participants who were either very rich or very poor. Szyf studied the methylation state of some 20,000 human genes, and found 6,176 varied significantly based on poverty or wealth. He found methylation changes were most likely when poverty had occurred in early childhood.

In an interview with the McGill Reporter, Szyf says: "My work bridges the humanities and sciences by showing how the nonphysical environment effects our genes. It also emphasizes we cannot understand biology and medicine without taking into account the social, economic and perhaps even the political environment. Is cancer just a cellular disease? A problem with bad genes? Humans cannot be reduced to a single cell, and we can't separate people from their environment."

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  neuroscience  research 

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Complex Associations Inhabit our Mental Neighborhoods

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 3, 2013

New research suggests we don't actually perceive separate objects and actions. We understand them in terms of how we have processed their relationships and associations with other objects and actions.

Alex Huth, a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley and a team of colleagues at the university's Gallant Lab wanted to learn how the brain makes sense of the thousands of visual images we see every day. Their findings appear to refute the long-held view that each category of objects and actions is represented in a separate part of the brain. Instead, it seems we create complex, intricately related and overlapping groupings represented in what the researchers call "a continuous semantic space."

Posted on December 21, 2012 by Zachary Urbina in Neuroscience

Researchers have even mapped how we organize things. Our brains create semantic neighborhoods, populated with things we see things as living and nonliving; moving, like cars and motorcycles, and stationary, like buildings and the sky, and we group things we understand social, such as people and verbs. Listen to Huth's explanation of this extraordinary research here, and find an interactive brain map here. Categories that activate the same brain area are shown in similar colors.

A Berkeley news story by Yasmin Anwar says new insights into brain organization can help with diagnosis and treatment of brain disorders, and further creation of brain-machine interfaces. It may also be useful for facial and image recognition systems.

Researchers recorded brain function of five volunteers using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging fMRI as they watched hours of movie clips. The story explains they built a model of how 30,000 locations in the cortex responded to each of 1,700 categories of objects and actions seen in the movies. Then they used principal components analysis (CPA) a statistical method that can summarize large data sets, to find the "semantic space" common to the brains of all subjects.

A thoughtful Scientific American blog by Ben Thomas observes the research shows we are skilled at relating our visual input to "other chunks of reality to which our brains have assigned certain characteristics." And he raises a profound question: If our brains use association to define what an object or action is, does that suggest "meaning" itself is just another word for "association?" He thinks more understanding of semantic coding is needed to answer that question. But whatever the answer, he writes, the research shows "even our most abstract concepts depend on our own real-world experiences."

The paper by Huth and colleagues, "A continuous semantic space describes the representation of thousands of object and action categories across the human brain," appears in the December 2012 issue of the magazine Neuron.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  neuroscience  research 

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If the Doctor Feels Your Pain, Will You Hurt Less?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, December 20, 2012

Placebo treatments can have real physiological impact, changing heart rate, blood pressure, chemical reactions in the brain, and influencing how we experience depression, anxiety, fatigue, pain and even some Parkinson's symptoms. Researchers are beginning to learn why, and new findings shed light on the importance of doctor-patient interactions.

Ted Kaptchuk and colleagues at the Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter (PiPS), the only multi-disciplinary institute devoted to studying placebos, are studying what makes an intervention work when there is no active drug ingredient involved. The researchers, all from the Harvard-affiliated hospitals that created PiPS, are identifying the mechanisms in our brains and bodies that produce the physiological responses. A story by Cara Feinberg in Harvard Magazine tells how Kaptchuk, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard and an acupuncturist with a degree in Chinese medicine from an institute in Macao, has spent years studying the way people are affected placebos and their delivery. That includes the physical surroundings and the characteristics of the treatment room, the behavior of the doctor, and method of treatment, whether it comes in the form of a pill or needle.

It turns out the placebo effect is actually many effects woven together. For years, placebos have been studied in comparison with real drugs. New research compares different placebos delivered differently. In one study, Kaptchuk divided 270 subjects suffering arm pain into two groups. One group was told that their pain pills might cause nasty side effects, from which they then truly suffered. The other group received acupuncture, and they reported greater pain relief. The unusual element in this study was that both treatments were fake. The pills were cornstarch, and the faux acupuncture needles never punctured the skin. But people thought acupuncture might really help, and they thought those miserable pill side effects would happen.

In another study, Kaptchuk examined the role of doctor-patient interactions in placebo effects. A group of 262 patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) were divided into three groups - one told they were awaiting treatment, one given fake acupuncture with little attention from the practitioner, and a third showered with a doctor's attention as they were given fake acupuncture. The well-tended group experienced the greatest relief. Russell Phillips, director of the Center for Primary Care at Harvard Medical School, says the research points to the importance of the "ritual of medicine" in patient care, and he says that's one finding from the research that doctors can use immediately in their practices.

Kaptchuk doesn't recommend placebos for infections and tumors and he doesn't suggest placebo treatments are ready for clinical application. His interest in the placebo effect was sparked years ago when his acupuncture patients experienced relief even before he started treating them, and he suspected his interactions with them were having something to do with that. His recent researched, published in PlosOne, showed that even patients who knew they were getting placebo IBS treatment experienced twice as much relief as a control group of IBS patients who were not treated. Neuro-imaging of patients' brains has shown that some placebo treatments activate the same brain chemicals that influence sensations of pleasure and reward. The story reports neuroscientist Fabrizio Benedetti from the University of Turin found changes in the electric and metabolic activity in many regions of the brains of depressed patients who received placebos. Researchers have also discovered a genetic component in the susceptibility to placebos, which can be important in designing real drug trials.

No one has fully studied the role that "ritual of medicine" plays in patient care and healing, and Kaptchuk and his team are providing insights on that. The team recently devised an experiment in which fMRIs of physicians brains were recorded as they treated patients.

"Doctors give subtle clues to their patients that neither maybe aware of," Kaptchuk said in the Harvard Magazine story. "They are a key ingredient to the ritual of medicine." Ultimately, he added, the goal is to "transform the art of medicine into the science of care." Read the Harvard Magazine story here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  medicine  neuroscience 

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The Neurochemistry of Time Influences the Workings of Mind

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 11, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The American physicist John Archibald Wheeler observed that time is what prevents everything from happening at once. Researchers are now beginning to suspect that impaired time perception is important in a wide range of psychological ills.

A June 10 New Scientist story by Andy Coghlan reports that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have a hard time with time. He cites a study by Katya Rubia at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London who suspected time perception might influence the short attention spans and impulsive behavior of children with ADHD. Researchers used MRI scans on 12 boys who had ADHD, and discovered below normal activity in the frontal lobe, basal ganglia, and cerebellum, brain areas thought to be critical for time perception. Those boys were also less adept at estimating time than 12 boys without ADHD. Interestingly, their time estimates improved after getting Ritalin, which boosts dopamine levels in the brain and is a drug commonly used to treat ADHD. The research is published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

For a child with ADHD, a few minutes of sitting still can seem like endless torment. Unusual and risky behavior stimulates dopamine, scientists say, and Rubia thinks that when kids with ADHD engage in hyper and disruptive behavior, they may actually be self medicating.

Some scientists have divided our time-keeping abilities into three domains, according to a story by Robert Roy Britt, "The Human Brain Seen as a Master of Time.” The circadian clock keeps us in sync with a 24 hour night and day cycle. Another clock operating on a millisecond level controls movement and speech and other vital functions we don’t consciously think about. Neuroscientists think a lesser known middle mode "interval timing” clock helps us manage functions that require seconds, minutes and longer periods of concentration.

Duke University neuroscientists Warren Meck and Catalin Buhusi, who is now with the Medical University of South Carolina, found that interval timing ability seems to be faulty in non-medicated Parkinson’s patients. They note that people who have Huntington’s disease, depression or mania also have been found to have impaired time perception. In addition, researchers have found faulty time perception in persons with schizophrenia. Researchers think drugs to influence the neurochemistry of time have potential to treat many disorders.

But our own thoughts, too, influence our understanding of time. Just think of the old sayings: time flies when you’re having fun and a watched pot never boils. And stress is a factor: One study showed smokers and non smokers were equally accurate in estimating time in an experimental setting. But when the smokers went cold turkey for 24 hours, their estimates deteriorated.

Time is the school in which we learn,

Time is the fire in which we burn.

Delmore Schwartz, "Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day"

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  neuroscience  time 

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