Of molecules and minds: 5 things we learned at BRAINet

The Brain Research Awareness and Information Network (BRAINet) is the volunteer outreach organization of the OHSU Brain Institute. Each month, they come together for a lecture luncheon. March’s special guest was Eric Gouaux, Ph.D.

Here are five things we learned about Dr. Gouaux and his research:

1. As a Senior Scientist and Principal Investigator for the Vollum Institute, Eric Gouaux’s lab studies the molecular principles underpinning the structure and function of chemical synapses.

2. He has been awarded a Howard Hughes Fellowship and was named one of the World’s Most Influential Scientists in 2014.

3. His research seeks to answer big questions like:

How do we function optimally throughout life to create the best outcome?

What are the crucial communication events between brain cells?

4. Neurological issues are often beyond the scope of many therapies. There are differences and often a disconnect between treatments for the mind and treatments for other disorders. These therapies have seen some improvement over the last fifty years, but we still only can see the tip of the iceberg. He studies the basic science behind these events and is committed to making his research publicly available so others can develop therapies.

5. How does he keep his brain sharp? Well, he’s got his eye on a colleague’s easy chair, so sleep is number one for him. Exercise and maintaining a positive social community have all been shown to help maintain brain health.

Would you like to get involved with BRAINet? Join here.

Brain Awareness Lecture recap: The Quest for Consciousness

Christof Koch, Ph.D. is chief scientific officer for the Allen Institute of Brain Science.

On March 9, he spoke at the Newmark Theatre as part of our 2015 Brain Awareness Lecture Series.

Here, he provides a brief summary of his presentation:

The aim of my life as a scientist is to understand how consciousness comes into the world! How is it that the human brain, the most complex piece of organized matter in the known universe, is capable of not only generating electrical activity and behavior but also has conscious subjective feelings, experiences the pains and pleasures, the sounds and sights of life.

To explain this we must analyze the brain – one of the two partners in the ancient mind-body problem – at the requisite cellular level in all of its vast complexity.

This is the goal of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. Funded by the extraordinary generosity of Paul G. Allen, we embarked in 2012 on an ambitious 10-year initiative to characterize the structure and the function of the cerebral cortex.

To accomplish this feat, we are taking a deep dive into vision and visual perception. We aim to provide a quantitative taxonomy of neuronal cell types and their interconnections, as well as how these cells connect to form a network.

Computer simulations will enable us to understand how neurons encode, relay and process information within those networks, and how function relates to perception, behavior and consciousness.

We will thereby be in a position to comprehend how mind arises out of matter and to better apprehend who we are.


There’s still time to take part in 2015 Brain Awareness events! Learn more:

On the blog: Five ways to explore Brain Awareness Season
Coming March 14: OHSU Brain Fair at OMSI
Next lecture on March 31: Nicolas Bazan, M.D., Ph.D. “Alzheimer’s Disease is a World Affair”

Buy your tickets now!

Spring forward with ease with these tips from a sleep expert

Daylight saving time gives us an opportunity to enjoy a little more sunlight when we get home from a busy day. However, studies indicate that this time change can also be associated with disrupted sleep, and even a suggestion of increased hearts attacks soon after.

Here are some tips for adjusting to daylight saving time this weekend:

1. Prepare for “springing ahead” by trying to get to bed early over this weekend. I would suggest avoiding large meals or significant exercise late in the evening.

Waking up a little earlier than usual will help you adapt to the time change on Monday morning a little easier.

2. A regular bedtime ritual, such as a relaxing activity or a warm bath, can sometimes help prevent insomnia. Keeping your bedroom quiet and comfortable will also help.

3. Take it easy this weekend. Avoid excessive alcohol and caffeine, which can be disruptive to your sleep. Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.

4. People often get less sleep during the time change. Make sure you are well-rested if you are driving.

Do you have a good strategy for dealing with the time change? Share it in the comments!


Gopal Allada, M.D. is a Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine who specializes in Critical Care, Sleep Medicine, Cystic Fibrosis, and Pulmonary Medicine. 


Five ways to explore Brain Awareness Season

On behalf of the OHSU Brain Institute, I am proud to present our 16th Brain Awareness Season!

This year’s theme is The Infinite Brain. The universe is full of unlimited connections and possibilities, but the world inside our heads is as equally fascinating and infinite. Our brains not only affect how we think, feel and act, but also how society develops and evolves.

The Season includes events for all types of audiences. Here are just a few of my recommendations:

1. Brain Awareness Lecture Series

brain awareness bannerHeld at the Newmark Theater in downtown Portland (sometimes called “Brains on Broadway”), this series features nationally known neuroscience experts and authors.

Each lecture is followed by a reception with exhibits, book signings, and refreshments.  There are even chocolate brains for sale!

Lectures kick off on Monday, March 9 with the Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science and contributing editor of  Scientific American MIND magazine, Christof Koch, Ph.D.

2. Brain Research and Awareness Network

The Brain Research and Awareness Network (BRAINet) is an engaged community-based ‘friends’ group of the OHSU Brain Institute.

These volunteers play an important part in generating enthusiasm for brain research and, most importantly, in making vital connections within the community.

You, too, can be a part of this vibrant group. Please join us! 

3. Brain Awareness Teacher Workshop

Join us Saturday, April 4 at the OHSU Auditorium for this annual teacher workshop, featuring top experts on the “young brain.”

This year Patricia Kuhl, Ph.D., of the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, will talk language and the developing brain.

The workshop is free for all teachers but pre-registration is required.

4. OHSU Brain Fair at OMSI

Kids of all ages will enjoy the Brain Fair at OMSI.

Saturday, March 14
10 a.m.-5 p.m.

This free event for families features displays, hands-on exhibits, real brains and dozens of OHSU Brain Institute scientists.


5.  Society for Neuroscience, Oregon Chapter Annual Meeting

This annual gathering of neuroscientists around the state and southwest Washington happens March 27 and 28.

This year’s keynote speaker is David H. Gutmann, M.D.,Ph.D., from Washington University in St. Louis.

For more information on any of these events, please go to www.ohsubrain.com/bas.


Bobby Heagerty is the Director of Community Affairs & Education at the OHSU Brain Institute.




Workplace freedom and support improves sleep

Attractive man breathing outdoor

About 25-30% of U.S. citizens report insufficient sleep, which is associated with workplace errors, crashes, disease, and even early mortality.

With co-authors from the Work, Family, and Health Network, I recently published our findings in the journal Sleep Health. In short, we found that a workplace program to reduce work-family conflict resulted in increased employee sleep a full year after the study started. This was measured with “sleep watches” that determine sleep periods through wrist movements.

So first, lets talk about freedom.

As an applied scientist, it doesn’t really matter whether I am in my office by 8:30 or 9:30 a.m., or if I work from home, as long as I ultimately publish quality research.

If a truck driver needs a follow-up health screening at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, or 11 a.m. on a Saturday, then I do it. It’s not about the time of day or hours I put in, but about what I get done.

“Sleep watches” determine sleep periods through wrist movements.

“Sleep watches” determine sleep periods through wrist movements.

In our study, employees at an information technology firm participated in a three-month training process that used discussion, games, and other activities to transition from a focus on face time, to a focus on work results. In other words, people were given the freedom to work when and where they wanted as long as their work got done.

Supervisor support also counts.

Leslie Hammer, a co-author at Portland State University, has identified key family supportive supervisory behaviors that reduce work-family conflict, which is when work demands harm our personal and family lives.In our study, supervisors completed training on this topic using technology and behavior change expertise from OHSU.

This included computer-based training software developed by Drs. Kent Anger and Diane Rohlman, and a behavioral self-monitoring iPhone/iPod Touch App that I designed with Dr. Brad Wipfli.

What’s remarkable in this project is that we did not directly target sleep. Yet, it turns out that if you give people freedom to work in a way that works for them, and train leaders support life outside of work, sleep improves!



Ryan Olson, PhD, is a Scientist at the Oregon Institute Of Occupational Health Sciences.





Funding for the Work, Family, & Health Network is provided by supporting partners through a cooperative agreement with the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

ThinkFirst volunteer dedicated to public health

ThinkFirst Oregon is a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating our state’s youth in the prevention of brain and spinal cord injuries. Through innovative classroom presentations and community outreach, their programs are designed to help young children and teens develop lifelong safety habits to avoid behaviors and situations that put them at risk.

These programs would not be possible without volunteers. This month, we spoke to volunteer Bich Tran about her experience. Thank you to Bich and all of the volunteers that contribute their time to programs like ThinkFirst!

bich tran

Bich is seen here volunteering at the ThinkFirst table at KidFest.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I am currently a student at Portland State University.  I will be graduating this Spring with a Bachelor of Science degree in Health Studies: Community.

How did you get involved with ThinkFirst?

My initial connection with ThinkFirst was through a school friend.  She has been volunteering for ThinkFirst for a few months and thought it would be a good opportunity for us to work in the community together.

I currently work with the Matter of Balance Program.  It was created to assist seniors with the educational tools they need to prevent falls as well as assistance after a fall.

Why did you choose to volunteer with ThinkFirst?

OHSU has always been a huge part of the community in many different health aspects and ThinkFirst has many programs that reach different individuals within the community to fill a public health need.  Volunteering for ThinkFirst/OHSU gives me the opportunity to learn and connect with people through education and experiences.

What programs have you been involved with?

Other programs that I have been involved with in the past are: Hawaii Food Bank, American Cancer Society, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

What are your plans for the future?

I want to be able to work with another organization that also focuses on the individual needs within public health in the near future.  If we can reach more individuals through our prevention programs in public health, the health of the nation as well as the cost of health care may be minimized.

If you could pick one safety tip to share with our readers, what would it be?

Wearing the right helmet may help minimize injuries in a street or sport accident.

To learn more about how you can become a ThinkFirst volunteer, email ThinkFirst@ohsu.edu or visit ThinkFirst online.

What can birds tell us about the human brain?

If you spent any time toasting in the new year, and found difficulty getting your words to come out clearly, do not worry — you are not alone. In a study published last month, Claudio Mello, Andrey Ryabinin, Devin Owen and myself — all from the OHSU Department of Behavioral Neuroscience — found that songbirds that drink alcohol experience difficulty in singing as well.

More than 500 media outlets across the world — including National Public Radio, CBS News online, the Washington Post, the New York Daily News and Portland’s KATU-TV — have done stories on the study, enjoying the humorous notion of birds “slurring” their tweets. But while we have known and joked about the similar effect of alcohol on human speech for some time, it turns out that scientists know very little about how alcohol affects the human brain. But why study booze in a bird?

It turns out that songbirds (like the zebra finches pictured here) have long been favored by neuroscientists to study the connection between vocal behavior and brain function. The ability to learn to vocalize allows for communication with speech and language and is a uniquely human trait. Vocal learning is so rare among mammals it exists only in bats and whales, which remain exceedingly hard to study. Yet birds learn to vocalize, not to recite poetry or debate politics, but to communicate with their song about their territory and to attract females. This willingness to sing, and the fact that the brain circuitry that underlies song production and learning is exceptionally well understood, allows researchers to study the production of a complex learned behavior like speech that we as humans rely on every day.

Scientists at OHSU have long been interested in how alcohol affects our brains and the Portland Alcohol Research Center — jointly run by the Portland VA Medical Center and OHSU — funded the study on finches. It is very interested in finding unique approaches to some very hard-to-answer questions about alcohol. Does it affect certain brain regions more than others? Does it affect certain behaviors more than others? What are the mechanistic consequences of alcohol for neuronal activity, enzyme function and gene expression?

In an OBI blog post a couple of years ago, OHSU’s Kathy Grant describes how the consumption of large amounts of alcohol can selectively target memory-related brain areas while affecting other brain functions less, resulting in the embarrassing situation where ones naughty behaviors the night before cannot be remembered.

Our study with songbirds shows that selectivity exists at even moderate levels of alcohol consumption. Here blood alcohol concentrations between 0.05-0.08 percent (where a level of 0.08 in humans is the legal limit to drive a vehicle) alters the acoustic structure of syllables within a bird’s learned song, and some syllables are more affected than other syllables in terms of certain acoustic features.

This effect indicates selectivity of alcohol in the vocal-motor areas of the brain at doses that many people commonly experience with casual drinking. This result suggests that vocal analysis can be used as a highly sensitive behavioral biomarker to indicate alcohol consumption,

More importantly, it will allow us to now go deeper to better understand how alcohol specifically affects the brain circuits that control vocal behavior, and it will allow for the investigation of alcohol effects during vocal learning, a period in humans that is akin to late adolescent brain development. At OHSU, with a vibrant neuroscience community and several labs organized around alcohol research, we are uniquely situated to pioneer the use of the zebra finch to better understand the effect of alcohol in the brain.



Chris Olson
Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Behavioral Neuroscience
OHSU Brain Institute



Listen to the differences in vocalizations:

YouTube Preview Image

Drink to your health — once again

’Tis the season to eat, drink and be merry! And perhaps a few of those seasonal sips will be of the adult variety.

So maybe it’s not a huge surprise that a study published in December 2013 by OHSU researchers got a bit more coverage in recent weeks.

The study, whose senior author was Kathy Grant of the OHSU Brain Institute and OHSU’s Oregon National Primate Research Center, found that moderate drinking may help boost the immune system, helping us fight off infections.

Whether media misread which December the study was actually published, or whether they thought we just might need a reminder, there was a bit of coverage again recently.

And, by the way, the study’s happy assessment still applies.


Originally posted December 31, 2013

There’s possibly no better time to highlight this research story than on New Year’s eve: a drink or two a day — a glass of wine, a glass of beer — might also keep the doctor away.

That’s what colleagues and I found in a study published this month in the journal Vaccine. We studied the drinking behaviors of rhesus macaque monkeys, who were given 22-hour-a-day access to a mixture of alcohol and water — and allowed to drink or not drink it. What we found after 14 months of study: the immune system of the monkeys that drank “moderate” amounts of alcohol were actually bolstered — more than the monkeys who drank more heavily and more than a control group of monkeys who drank a low-calorie sugar solution. We defined “moderate” drinking as monkeys who had a blood alcohol level of 0.02 to 0.04 percent (A blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent is the limit for humans to be able to legally drive a vehicle.).

The media coverage of our work — which has been extensive, in USA Today, Time, The Daily Beast and elsewhere — has focused on the happy news that drinking in moderation might help boost our immune system and help us fight off infection. But my colleague, Ilhem Messaoudi Powers (formerly at OHSU, now at the University of California-Riverside), and I want our research to go beyond that. We want to better understand how our body is reacting to moderate alcohol to actually have this effect. The goal would be to then find new, alcohol-free ways — maybe new medications — to boost the immune system, in generally healthy people and in people with immunodeficiency.

Of course, based on what we’ve found, it looks like people might be able to get that boost by enjoying their New Year’s Eve with that glass of wine, as well.  But remember — it’s all about moderation.


Kathy Grant, Ph.D.
Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience
OHSU Brain Institute



On the Brain’s top 5 blog posts of 2014

As we welcome in the new year, here’s a look back at the brain-related news you may have missed; a round-up of our most read blog posts of 2014:

1. Your brain…in love

There’s a specific spot in the brain (a love locus) where romance resides amidst the complex circuits and intricate chemicals that comprise our emotional nervous system.

2. Neuroscientists go to Washington — as advocates for science

Neuroscientists from around the country attended the  Society for Neuroscience Capitol Hill Day in Washington, D.C to ask for support of a healthy budget for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

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

There are some simple ways that give you a very, very good chance of having a healthy heart and a sharp brain well into old age.

4. Keeping your brain healthy — 7 simple steps

Learn more about the American Heart Association’s “Simple 7″ steps for healthy living and OHSU’s Healthy Brain Campaign.

5. Teenagers must understand their own brain — a work in progress

Seventeen year old Sophie Hamilton launched a brain awareness campaign and club at Riverdale High School in Southwest Portland.

What would you like to know more about?

Brain facts? The latest OHSU research? In the comments below, let us know what you’d like us to share in 2015! And in the meantime, stay informed by following us on FacebookTwitter and our OHSU account on Instagram!

What you missed at BRAINet: The Many Brains in Music

The Brain Research Awareness and Information Network (BRAINet) is the volunteer outreach organization of the OHSU Brain Institute. BRAINet Lecture Luncheons are held each month, where members can hear presentations from OHSU faculty members.

On December 15, we were lucky enough to be joined by Larry Sherman, Ph.D., who spoke about the connections between music and the brain. Dr. Sherman is both an accomplished musician and Senior Scientist for the Division of Neuroscience at OHSU’s Oregon National Primate Research Center.

What did we learn?

The brain is a “use it or lose it” organ. Music is just one way to keep pushing it as we grow older. As we age, formation of the new neurons in our brains slow down. Synapses become weakened or destroyed and myelin–the material that coats, protects, and insulates nerves–becomes damaged. All of these changes contribute to age-related sensory, motor and cognitive decline. These changes are also accelerated in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions.

Could music influence each of these processes?

Dr. Sherman thinks so. Music crosses the cultural divide and commonalities between vocalizations are found across the world. Mothers instinctually sing to their children. Children use the same sing-song vocalization when they taunt “nyah nyah nyah nyah.” The brain’s processing of music happens quickly, nearly immediately.

Dr. Sherman played a series of notes and asked the audience each time to sing the following note. Each time, the audience was able to discern what came next, even in an unfamiliar scale. It was surprisingly easy to adjust each time the music shifted.

There is great evidence that shows that playing a musical instrument increases neurogenesis, or the generation of new neurons. Practicing a piano for just eleven minutes a day shows an increase in white matter in the brain, where myelin is located. Those over the age of 70 who focus on learning and development also show stronger myelination. There are also indications that just thinking about how a certain piece of music is played can have an impact on myelination.

Find out more about BRAINet and how you can get involved. 

Want to know more? Watch video of Larry Sherman presenting at OMSI or listen to a podcast about the brain.

Participation Guidelines

Remember: information you share here is public; it isn't medical advice. Need advice or treatment? Contact your healthcare provider directly. Read our Terms of Use and this disclaimer for details.