Finding the end of the story…in different ways

Many years ago, while walking down a sidewalk with my son, I looked down at my small boy and asked him whether he preferred reading fiction or non-fiction. He said he likes what he learns from non-fiction but it isn’t as exciting as fiction. Non-fiction tells you what’s happening right from the start, he said, but in fiction, you don’t find out until the end.

His comment was an epiphany for me. I study mouse social behavior, an area of research useful for understanding autism, addiction and animal communication. I have a Ph.D. in immunology, master’s degrees in behavioral ecology and toxicology, more than 30 scientific publications and I’ve been a professor in behavioral neuroscience at OHSU for nearly seven years.  As a scientist, I often don’t have answers after a year of research, or even after a decade. So, in a sense, I experience science more like a reader of fiction than of non-fiction. Irked by how science is portrayed to the public, I decided to learn how to write creatively, like an author whom non-scientists — normal people — might actually read.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve taken writing classes at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and worked with a mentor in creative writing. I submitted my first essay, ‘NQR,’ to a writing contest fielded by december magazine. It’s not a well-known magazine, but has featured works early in the careers of some great authors including Joyce Carol Oates, William Stafford, Marvin Bell and Raymond Carver. In this essay, I watch a young boy undergo a clinical evaluation for autism and consider myths about the science process that our society holds dear. ‘NQR’ won the Curt Johnson Prose Award in Creative Nonfiction.

When I write up my scientific studies, my discoveries are behind me. When I write creative essays, I make discoveries while I’m typing. I guess my son knew that too.

Garet Lahvis, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Behavioral Neuroscience
OHSU Brain Institute

Here’s an excerpt from Dr. Lahvis’ ‘NQR:’

It’s uncomfortable standing behind the one-way mirror. It extends from the drop ceiling to about chest height, so the gray metal chairs aren’t high enough to view the clinic room. The air tastes stale, marked by a tinge of glue once ladled under the blue-grey carpet. I watch through the mirror, my two graduate students standing beside me.

A six-year-old boy walks through our clinic room door, pauses, then continues toward a few toys scattered by a bin and a squat table near the left wall. I see wooden blocks, a plastic action figure, and a small pillow that looks like a smiling locomotive. He picks up several blocks and brings them to the center of the room. A clinician in her late 20s enters the room followed closely by a man and a woman. She gestures toward two small plastic seats formed like ice cream scoops, perched on thin chrome legs, better fitted for children. The boy’s parents sit down, side-by-side. The clinician sits down on a small chair by the wooden table. Knees high, she writes on the cover of a light blue pamphlet. The boy sits on the red-orange carpet, one leg curled below him, the other extended to shield the blocks.

The clinician reaches toward a blue polyurethane bin, its lid faded under the fluorescent lighting. Scrawled on its surface, as if there were no thought to its semi-permanence, reads, ‘ADOS Kit Complete: Autism Clinic.’ She wades her hand through the bin and draws out a bulky translucent plastic bag, opens it, and lets toys tumble onto the table.

“Jason, I have some toys here . . .”

On the floor, the boy turns a block, cradles it in his fingers and drops it, turns another block, cradles it in his fingers, and places it on the carpet.

An autism diagnosis is nuanced. Clinicians find children as “on the spectrum” if they repeat certain behaviors or thoughts and have difficulties with social interactions and communication. Each child on the spectrum tacks on a different orientation. One boy sways back and forth by the front door.

Read the essay in its entirety here – please note that you’ll be prompted to enter your name and email address in order to gain access.

Neuroscientists go to Washington — as advocates for science

This last March, I had the opportunity to join fellow neuroscientists from around the country in an effort to increase political awareness of scientific research during the Society for Neuroscience Capitol Hill Day in Washington, D.C. The group was made up of about 45 Society for Neuroscience members, including graduate students, post-doctoral fellows (like myself), faculty members, SfN staff and senior SfN leaders. Combined, we met with more than 75 congressional offices over the course of one day, with the goal of lobbying for support of neuroscience research nationwide.

Our main goal for the day was to ask each office to support a healthy budget for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. These two government agencies fund the majority of scientific research in the U.S., through grant money awarded to both young and established researchers across the country. These budgets are set by Congressional appropriations committees and voted on by all members of Congress — just like any other budget item (like military spending or Medicare). Did you know that your tax dollars directly pay for most of the scientific research in this country?

As a scientist who enjoys talking about my research, I found the whole experience energizing. My group and I met with congressional offices from Michigan, Minnesota and Oregon. Most of the time we meet with staff members, but we did have the opportunity to meet directly with Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, my congressman. Congressman Blumenauer has championed an effort on Capitol Hill to increase awareness and open discussion about the importance of neuroscience research through the formation of the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus.

So what did a group of scientists find to talk about with political staffers and elected officials? Each member of the group took the time to explain their particular research focus and the health implications of their findings. We talked about how the recent budget cuts due to sequestration have greatly impacted our ability to carry out meaningful experiments that will answer essential questions about brain health, disease and basic brain function. These budget cuts are no joke — labs are being shut down due to lack of funding, clinical trials are being suspended and young, frustrated scientists are leaving research to pursue different career paths.

Sharing our stories and asking our political leaders to restore NIH and NSF budget lines is one step in creating a vibrant national neuroscience research community. Engaging with the public to rally support for research is another essential piece of the puzzle. When I share my Hill Day experience with my colleagues at OHSU, many of them recognize the importance of increasing public dialogue about science research and funding, and they are eager to get involved as well. Many scientists just don’t know where to start. I am grateful for the opportunity to be involved with the Society for Neuroscience’s Hill Day this year, and I hope to participate again in the future.

Kateri Spinelli, Ph.D.
Post doctoral fellow, Dept. of Neurology
OHSU Brain Institute

Healthy Brain Campaign: Get active

The OHSU Brain Institute has launched the Healthy Brain Campaign to spread the message that the key to maintaining a healthy brain is to do all of the things you know are good for your heart and your overall health. That is why we are dedicating each month, from March until October, to following the American Heart Association’s “Life’s Simple 7” steps to living a healthier lifestyle. During May, we urge you to take the second step in the series on “Life’s Simple 7” — which is to get active!

Get active by engaging in thirty minutes of moderate exercise, five times a week.  Physical activity may help you lose or maintain weight, lower your blood pressure, increase your HDL (or “good” cholesterol) and keep your blood sugar levels under control. Regular moderate physical activity (for 150 minutes or more per week) can help increase energy levels, relieve stress, and have a positive effect on mood.

And what about the flipside? Being physically inactive promotes an increase in several cardiovascular risk factors — such as cholesterol problems, hypertension, Type 2 Diabetes, and obesity — that can contribute to poor cognitive health. Despite the health benefits of getting active, nearly 70 percent of Americans do not get the physical activity they need.
Here are some basics about cardiovascular risk factors, which can contribute to poor cognitive health:

• The most common risk factors for cardiovascular disease in the United States are physical inactivity and obesity.

• The deaths of more than 200,000 people aged 75 and younger from heart disease and stroke in 2010 could have been prevented with lifestyle changes such as improved diet and exercise.

• There are approximately 700,000 heart attacks and nearly 800,000 strokes each year in the United States.

So how can you get active?

• Walk. Get outside and enjoy the beautiful weather — or even the light rain — during your lunch breaks, before or after work and on weekends.  You can record your daily steps with a pedometer and set a goal for yourself to gradually reach the recommended 10,000 steps a day

• Join a Team. It helps to have encouragement and support from workout companions, especially on days when you are feeling less than motivated to exercise. SW Trails PDX is a community group that promotes walking and biking in southwest Portland by leading regular monthly hikes.

• Stay Active at Work – The United States Department of Agriculture has provided several innovative “Tips for Increasing Physical Activity” at home, play and work. Among the recommendations: when coming home from work, people can get off the bus or subway one stop early and walk or bike the remainder of the way home.

Check with your health care provider before starting an exercise program. If you want guidance in initiating an exercise plan, explore the OHSU Medical Exercise Program or call us for more info, at 503-418-6272.

James Chesnutt, M.D.
Medical Director
OHSU March Wellness & Fitness Center and OHSU Concussion Program

Sarah Brown
Research Assistant
OHSU Brain Institute

 

May 12 Brain Awareness Lecture: Cancer and the brain

Several years ago, U.S. scientists launched a hugely ambitious project called the Cancer Genome Atlas.

It is a comprehensive and coordinated effort to increase our understanding of the molecular basis of cancer. The project is doing that through the application of something called genome analysis, including large-scale genome sequencing.

After the project launched in 2006, its first target was the brain. Project leaders wanted to learn more about the most common and lethal of brain tumors — a cancer called gliobastoma multiforme, or GBM.

Eight years later, scientists have discovered new details about key genes, proteins and pathways of GBM. These findings may someday lead to a better understanding of the disease — and ultimately, to new treatments.

All of this is exciting to me, as someone who wants to understand all forms of cancer better — at the molecular level — so we can beat them all.

I’ll be talking about cancer and the brain during my Brain Awareness Season lecture this Monday evening, May 12. The lecture, sponsored by the OHSU Brain Institute, will begin at 7 pm. at the Newmark Theater in downtown Portland.

Another thing I’ll be talking about is maybe a bit more surprising. We understand the connection between cancer and the brain with devastating brain tumors. But science is just beginning to understand something else: that the brain may influence aspects of our body’s physiology that in turn influence the behavior of cancers elsewhere in the body. It’s a fascinating new area of research.

And it might be another avenue toward our ultimate goal — beating all forms of cancer.

Joe Gray, Ph.D.
Associate Director for
Translational Research, Knight Cancer Institute
Director, OHSU Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine

 

Healthy Brain Campaign: Quit Smoking

At the start of the OHSU Brain Institute’s Healthy Brain Campaign we encouraged you to partner with a Healthcare provider to educate yourself on the seven key health factors and behaviors that will keep your heart and brain healthy and enhance your quality of life. During April, our focus is on the first of the American Heart Association’s “Life’s Simple 7″ keys to better health — which is to quit smoking.

Health Risks

The health risks from smoking cigarettes are too significant to ignore. According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s latest report, cigarette smoking has claimed the lives of ten times the number of Americans who died in all of our nation’s wars combined.

Despite Surgeon General warnings and anti-tobacco campaigns, smoking remains the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States, killing nearly one-half million adults per year. Smoking harms nearly every organ in the body, but let’s just consider its effect on the heart and blood vessels.

Smoking and the Brain

Any amount of smoking can damage the heart and blood vessels by speeding up the build-up of fatty deposits (plaques) in the arteries – called atherosclerosis, and the development of peripheral artery disease. Smokers have lower levels of high-density lipoprotein — or HDL, the “good cholesterol” — and significantly higher levels of triglyceride and low-density lipoprotein — or LDL, the “bad cholesterol.” Unhealthy cholesterol levels can lead to high blood pressure, which in turn can cause scarring in the arteries that makes it easier for fatty deposits (triglycerides and LDL cholesterol) to stick and to harden, thereby restricting blood flow to your organs. If these plaques build up in the coronary arteries, this can lead to heart attack and heart failure. If the plaques build up in the arteries leading to your brain and then crack or rupture, this can lead to stroke.

The risks associated with smoking cigarettes are numerous, but so are the benefits associated with quitting smoking. Quitting can have almost immediate benefits on your health. For example:

  • Approximately 20 minutes after quitting, you can expect to see your blood pressure and heart rate normalize following a cigarette-induced spike.
  • After 12 hours, the carbon monoxide from your cigarettes will no longer be present at high levels in your body. Therefore your red blood cells will be able to bind and offload oxygen to your tissues without competition from carbon monoxide.
  • Within months following your decision to quit smoking, you will be able to breathe with more ease and perhaps even engage in heart – and brain – healthy activities such as walking, running or playing with your children.
  • After one year of non-smoking, your risk of coronary heart disease declines by 50 percent.

Find Help to Quit Smoking

  • First, partner with your primary care provider to find or develop a suitable program to help you quit smoking.
  • Check out the American Cancer Society’s Quit For Life® Program, which integrates free medication, web-based learning and confidential phone-based support from expert tobacco cessation coaches. You can get more info at 1-866 QUIT-4-LIFE (784-8454) or enroll online.
  • Also check out the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s education campaign – Tips From Former Smokers (Tips) and its guide to quitting.

Hormozd Bozorgchami, M.D.
Oregon Stroke Center
OHSU Brain Institute

Sarah Brown
Research Assistant
OHSU Brain Institute

 

April 7 Brain Awareness lecture: the adolescent brain

Adolescence is a time of dramatic behavioral, cognitive, social, and biological change. In recent years, techniques that scientists use to measure and image the brain have greatly enhanced our understanding of these changes.

I’ll be talking about some of these changes – and everything that scientists are learning about the differences in the teenage brain – during my Brain Awareness Season lecture this Monday evening, April 7. The lecture, sponsored by the OHSU Brain Institute, will begin at 7 p.m. at the Newmark Theater in downtown Portland.

What’s especially notable about the adolescent brain is that different systems of the brain are not developing at the same rates. This difference in developmental timing results in heightened vulnerability during the adolescent years.

Also, due to something called “neuroplasticity,” the adolescent brain is highly dependent on experiences. Neuroplasticity is how life experiences reorganize pathways in the brain. Neuroplasticity in the adolescent brain is especially high. This means that both positive and negative environmental influences play a role in shaping a teen’s functioning.

My lab at OHSU focuses on using techniques to better understand neurodevelopment in both healthy and at-risk adolescent populations. My presentation will describe the cutting-edge research surrounding these changes and help to explain why the adolescent period is a vulnerable and challenging time of development.

Bonnie Nagel, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital
Member, OHSU Brain Institute

 

Keeping your brain healthy — 7 simple steps

Keeping your brain healthy is simpler than you might think.

In fact, the best chance for keeping your brain healthy — far into your senior years — can be as simple as keeping your body healthy.

But it takes a commitment, and maybe just a bit of sideline support. So the OHSU Brain Institute has recently launched its Healthy Brain Campaign. At the center of the campaign are seven simple lessons to live by — and live well by. They are the American Heart Association’s “Simple 7″ steps for healthy living: get active, control your cholesterol, maintain a healthy weight, eat better, manage your blood pressure, reduce your blood sugar and stop smoking.

Over the next several months, the Brain Institute’s Healthy Brain Campaign will focus on those simple steps — and help you understand how to achieve each one of them. But you need an accomplice and a helper. The first step is to work with your primary care provider. Or, if you don’t have one, find one. Here are some simple steps:

• find the primary care providers who are covered by your insurance plan’s network.

• learn more about the providers who interest you. If you are interested in an OHSU provider, OHSU has a web page that can help. You can also learn more about many Portland area physicians at Portland Monthly’s annual review of top physicians. WebMD’s website also has a physician directory that provides a listing of physicians, including their locations, years of experience and insurance carriers they accept.

• once you find your provider, develop a trusting and effective relationship with him or her. Be open about your health concerns and your lifestyle. Ask questions. Listen carefully to your provider’s advice. Work with your provider to set realistic goals — and then begin implementing the changes she or he recommends.

The road to better health — and toward maintaining a healthy brain — has a first step. Take that first step.

Joe Quinn, M.D.
Director, OHSU Parkinson Center
Professor, Department of Neurology
OHSU Brain Institute

Kent L. Thornburg, Ph.D.
M. Lowell Edwards Chair,
 Professor of Medicine, OHSU School of Medicine
Director, Center for Developmental Health, Knight Cardiovascular Institute
Director, Bob and Charlee Moore Institute for Nutrition & Wellness

One more shot of espresso, for memory’s sake

How much do Portlanders love their coffee? A lot. According to a 2011 poll by CNBC, Portland is the third most caffeinated city in the U.S., with almost 900 coffee shops and 30 local coffee roasters.

And does this love of coffee have any effect on brain health? A new study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience suggests that caffeine might actually be a good thing for how our brain stores and processes long-term memories.

Many studies have documented the positive effects of caffeine on attention and processing speed, which we are all probably familiar with from our own personal experiences. I’m usually happy with just one small cup of coffee with breakfast. But if I feel sleepy after a big lunch, sometimes I’ll indulge in a second cup to perk myself up for a busy afternoon or evening. Like most people, I usually think of caffeine as a little pick-me-up to give me the energy to tackle a task that I have to take on in the future.

In the new study by Daniel Borota and his colleagues, the researchers flipped the caffeine question around to ask: what if we give subjects caffeine after they perform a memory task? This is called a “post-study” design, and the researchers paired it with a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled experimental set-up. Randomized means that the 160 subjects were randomly assigned to the caffeine or non-caffeine (placebo) conditions. Double-blind means that in addition to the researchers not knowing which group each subject belonged to when they were collecting and analyzing the data, the test subjects did not even know they were going to be asked to perform a memory task. Experimental studies are designed with these features to reduce conscious and unconscious bias both in the test subjects and the researchers, so that the results and conclusions can be as biologically meaningful as possible.

There were two other important characteristics of the test subjects that allowed the researchers to conclude that changes in memory were associated with the caffeine given during the study. All the subjects consumed only small amounts of caffeine in their daily lives (even less then I drink!), and they were “caffeine-naïve,” meaning that they did not have any other sources of caffeine in their diet during the study.

The test subjects were shown a series of common, every day objects, and were asked to report on certain qualities of each object. After the test period, they were then given a moderate amount of caffeine or placebo. Twenty-four hours later, they were tested again, but this time they were asked to recall if the objects presented were different, similar, or exactly the same as the objects they saw the day before. Those who had received caffeine the day before were better at knowing the difference between objects that were exactly the same vs. objects that were similar to the previous day. The researchers concluded that caffeine given after the task had a significant impact on the subjects’ ability to consolidate and store long-term memories, specifically when it comes to distinguishing between similar but different objects.

Importantly, the researchers measured the amount of caffeine in the saliva of all subjects, and showed that there was no caffeine in their system on the second day, at the time of the memory task, indicating that caffeine did not affect the subjects’ ability to recall memories. Furthermore, when caffeine was given just before the memory task on the second day, there was no benefit, which shows that caffeine was not able to beef up memory retrieval.

Of course, we all have had the experience where too much coffee sends you into a jittery, counter-productive, can’t-sit-still-and-focus state. Along these lines, the researchers also report a dose effect in their study: 200 milligrams of caffeine produced the optimum effect, while 100 milligrams was not enough, and a higher dose of 300 milligrams did not significantly enhance the effect. To put that into perspective, a 16-ounce Starbucks drip coffee has about 330 milligrams of caffeine, while a 16-ounce latte has only 150 mg, and an espresso shot has about 75 milligrams.

As with most things, moderation is key. But perhaps a bit of caffeine right after your next big brain-demanding task will help you remember those important parts of your day.

Kateri Spinelli, Ph.D.
Post doctoral fellow, Dept. of Neurology
OHSU Brain Institute

The road to a healthy heart is the road to a healthy brain

What if we told you that you could live your life in simple ways that give you a very, very good chance of having a healthy heart and a sharp brain well into old age?

No special drugs, no special surgeries, no amazing scientific discoveries and no wonder cures.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? And it’s simple. Science is beginning to understand that the route to a healthy brain and healthy heart might be pretty much on the same road. The important mileposts on that road: eating smartly, getting moderate exercise, controlling your weight, your blood pressure and your cholesterol levels and stopping smoking.

The two of us — one a brain expert, the other a heart expert — will talk about brains and hearts and health this Monday night, Feb. 24, as part of the OHSU Brain Institute’s Brain Awareness Season lecture series. Our lecture will begin at 7 p.m. at the Newmark Theater in downtown Portland.

We’ll talk about how science has known for years that following some of these “living healthy” principles can help your heart health. But we’re increasingly seeing that the same good practices that help your heart also seem to help your brain.

For example, science knows no absolute cure or prevention — yet — for dementia. But there are hints.

A long-term study of 678 Roman Catholic nuns (known, not surprisingly, as the Nun Study) has shown that in patients with an equivalent number of “plaques” and “tangles” in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease, only those who also had had small strokes showed signs of dementia. That could mean small strokes somehow “activated” the dementia in brains that had the plaques.

And that suggests that if you decrease your risk factors for stroke — by following those “living healthy” principles — you also decrease your risk of dementia.

We’re also increasingly understanding how important prenatal nutrition is to that baby’s health — heart health, brain health and overall health — as an adult. Lower birth weight from poor prenatal nutrition means a higher risk of stroke and heart disease. And many organs, including the heart and brain, grow abnormally when nutrition is poor before birth.

There’s a lot more to talk about, in terms of how lifestyle decisions you make every day have a long-term effect on your heart and brain. So join us Monday night — on the road to better heart and brain health.

And you don’t have to stop learning on Monday. You can learn much more by joining the OHSU Brain Institute’s just-launched Healthy Brain campaign. The campaign will offer monthly tips and a way to celebrate your progress and learn more from each other and OHSU experts in September.

Joe Quinn, M.D.

Director, OHSU Parkinson Center
Professor, Department of Neurology
OHSU Brain Institute

Kent L. Thornburg, Ph.D.
M. Lowell Edwards Chair,
 Professor of Medicine, OHSU School of Medicine
Director, Center for Developmental Health, Knight Cardiovascular Institute
Director, Bob and Charlee Moore Institute for Nutrition & Wellness

 

Your brain … in love

Neuroscientists have long wondered whether or not there’s a love locus in the brain; a spot where romance resides amidst the complex circuits and intricate chemicals that comprise our emotional nervous system. Recent studies have surprised us as neurologists; there is such a spot and, interestingly, it involves the nerve cells and neural circuits that drive us to crave food, water and even illicit drugs. And these are not the circuits that involve lust or sexual desire.

Recent studies support this love locus by demonstrating brain images in functional MRI scans. These specialized scans display pictures that capture the activity, not just the structure (as in regular MRI scans) of brain cells. Young, love-crazed college students were shown pictures of the objects of their affection while undergoing functional MRI scans. Behold, the parts of the brain that were activated when the students saw their love’s photograph were the areas that have a high concentration of dopamine, one of the brain’s key neurotransmitters.

Dopamine is a chemical that carries messages that influence reward, craving, and, also, drug addiction. So, in effect, these young lovers were truly “addicted” to one another, and, in fact, were found to have physically painful withdrawal symptoms when their fresh young love was thwarted.

But what about those of us long past the dizzying, delirious highs of a fevered, lovesick youngster? Actually, there is great news for those of us much farther into our relationships with the one we love. A recent study from Stony Brook University in New York demonstrated that some mature couples — who had been in love for years, even decades — still had the burst of frenzied activity in the dopamine pathways in the brain when they looked at pictures of their longtime lovers. Just as if they were college students. So no one can say that young love fades and passion wanes over time, at least not from a neurobiological standpoint!

Love does live on, but it also has many facets. I was particularly enthralled by a study from the University of Minnesota, whose researchers asked young men and women to make four lists: of their friends, the people they loved, the people they thought sexually attractive, and, lastly, those with whom they were “in love.”

The last list most often had just one name. But, consistently, that name was also on all the other lists. True love is a powerful force that embraces friendship, affection, sexual attraction and romantic impulse. It is as intoxicating as a drug. So this Valentine’s Day, I hope you appreciate the complex pathways in your brain that comprise those feelings you have of potent and enduring romantic love. Whatever your age, and however long you have been in love.

Tarvez Tucker, M.D.
Associate Professor of Neurology and Neurocritical Care
OHSU Brain Institute

 

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