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:

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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.

The connection between the brain, sleep and dementia

Last week, I talked about ongoing research on how sleep “deep cleans” your brain, as well as my participation in the National Geographic Channel’s documentary Sleepless in America.

Meanwhile, our team of OHSU researchers, along with colleagues at the University of Rochester in New York, are plunging ahead with the story of the brain, sleep and dementia.

We recently published an article in the journal Annals of Neurology that showed that the “brain cleaning system” is impaired in the aging brain, and that this impairment is associated with an inability to properly clean out the proteins built up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. This suggests that the brain’s inability to “keep its house clean” may be one of the factors that makes the aging brain vulnerable to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

New findings show that the same processes may also be at work in the aging brain and in the young post-traumatic brain. This month, we published an article in the Journal of Neuroscience showing that the system is similarly impaired in the young brain after a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Recent clinical studies show that suffering a traumatic brain injury early in life increases your chances of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, in the decades that follow.

We’ve heard a great deal recently in the news about former football players suffering from an Alzheimer’s-like condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Yet we haven’t understood what it is that happens after brain trauma that sets the stage for neurodegeneration later in life.

This research is ongoing and emphasizes the fact that sleep is indeed essential to the basic function of the brain. For more information, and to stay up-to-date with our most recent neuro-research, visit ohsubrain.com or join the conversation on Facebook.

And for more on sleep, don’t miss the National Geographic Channel’s “Sleepless in America.” The full episode is now available online!

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Jeffrey Iliff
, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine and works with the Knight Cardiovascular Institute and the OHSU Brain Institute.


Sleepless in America — and the science behind it

There’s nothing quite like that feeling in your head after a long night of…no sleep.

Your head feels disorganized, foggy, fuzzy, jumbled.

Like it’s full of sludge left over from the night before. That’s maybe because it is.

My colleagues and I have made some recent discoveries about what happens to the brain during sleep. In essence, we’ve found that the brain’s cells shrink during sleep in order to open up the space between them. That space allows cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain to wash through it, flushing out debris and waste.

When the brain is asleep, this process allows the brain’s waste material to be cleared out at 20 times the rate of an awake brain! Our findings have given the scientific community a new understanding of sleep, and provide new insight into how this process — or the impairment of it — may be linked to dementia.

Our research recently attracted the attention of producers working on a documentary about sleep, which is airing now on the National Geographic Channel. I was interviewed for the documentary, called Sleepless in America. The film takes an in-depth look at not only the science of sleep, but also the severe societal impacts of tens of millions of Americans not getting enough of it.

Slowly, we’re building a better understanding of the complex nature of sleep — how good sleep, bad sleep, aging, and brain injury could be affecting our brains in profound and long-lasting ways.

Sleepless in America first aired Sunday, Nov. 30, and is set to air again on Dec. 7.  I hope you’ll tune in!


Jeffrey Iliff
, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine and works with the Knight Cardiovascular Institute and the OHSU Brain Institute.





Learn more:

The Washington Post:
No, you’re not sleeping enough, and it’s a big problem: 15 scary facts in new NatGeo doc

National Geographic Channel: 
Sleepless in America
Encore presentation on Sunday, December 7, 2014, 9 a.m. 

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There’s an app for that! How mobile devices can help memory and planning

Over the last few years we have had a surge in the availability and affordability of “apps” or programs that can run on your phone, tablet or other mobile device.

Many apps promise to make life easier and more convenient. It is sometimes difficult to know if the app stands up to those claims, or whether it would just be easier to set an alarm by the bed, look at a paper calendar on the wall—just like in the good ol’ days.

I think it is best to at least try some new things and choose what works best for you. You may be surprised at how easy many of these apps are to use and how they really can help you.

MEMORY – Memory aids such as lists, diaries, clocks and clear, written instructions can help jog your memory. 

Pill Time – $0.99. Helps you keep track of medicine and remind you when you need to take them. It takes a while to get them all entered, but once you do it is fairly easy to use. There are lots of pill reminder programs. Find one that fits you the best.

Spaced Retrieval TherAppy – FREE. So you did spaced retrieval with your speech therapist and now you want to do more at home with your loved one? Use this app to track how long items have been recalled for and what the next interval should be.

COGNITIVE EXERCISES – Brain training exercises to help with your brain’s ability to learn and think. 

Lumosity – FREE. Features include: daily games, a good introduction if you are considering the full online version ($14.99/month). Fun and easy to use.

BrainHQ – FREE. Features include: daily games, also a good introduction to the full online version.

MINDFULNESS/RELAXATION – Beneficial for many things such as disease and pain management, sleep, and control of emotions.

Breathe2relax – FREE. Originally developed for Veterans returning with PTSD. This app allows you to complete breathing for relaxation exercises with visual and auditory instructions

The Mindfulness App – $1.99. Takes you through several relaxation exercises.

PLANNERS/ORGANIZERS – Keeps all the important things in one place. 

Things. $9.99 – A good task manager- it helps get life done. Features include: to-do lists with reminders, projects with specific action items, daily to-do.

Evernote – FREE. Organizes information across devices. Set tasks, reminders,appointments, take notes, pictures.


AppSPD life – FREE. Developed by the Parkinson’s Association of the Rockies. Features include: Record all of your medications and dosages, schedule reminders to ensure you take your medications on time, track and improveyour ability to take medications on time, track and report timing of your “On/Off” periods, track and report your symptoms and side effects, track and report your “PD Life Score”, take your device with you to your next healthcare visit – make it part of your normal healthcare dialogue.

Parkinson’s Central Smartphone App – FREE. National Parkinson’s Foundation. Features include: “Near Me” tool to find resources in your area, how to get the most out of doctor visits, ins and outs of diagnosis and medicationmanagement, tips on how to live well with Parkinson’s, information about insurance and finance, special caregiver content.

Most of these programs are available in both Apple and Android formats.

Rubin, Michal_14


Michal Rubin, CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist who specializes in rehabilitation of language, speech and cognitive-linguistic deficits.  She currently works at OHSU’s Outpatient Rehabilitation Services Department.





OHSU earns top honors for stroke care

Quickly administering the clot-busting, brain-saving drug t-PA to restore blood flow to the brain. Treating acute ischemic stroke patients with medications that prevent the formation of additional blood clots, when it’s safe and appropriate, 100 percent of the time. Exceeding the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association’s quality measures 95 plus percent of the time.

These are a few of the reasons OHSU has earned top honors for its stroke care for the eighth consecutive year.

The American Heart Association/American Stroke Association (AHA/ASA) presented the OHSU Stroke Center with its Get With the Guidelines® Stroke Gold Plus award Oct. 22 in recognition of our excellent stroke care. The Gold Plus award is the top stroke treatment honor and recognizes hospitals who meet all seven Get With the Guidelines® Stroke Achievement Measures at least 85 percent of the time and five or more Get With the Guidelines® Stroke Quality Measures at least 75 percent of the time. And to get the gold, hospitals like OHSU must meet these standards for 12 consecutive months. As noted earlier, OHSU exceeded the AHA/ASA standards by achieving 95 percent or better compliance with these measures.

In addition to quickly administering clot-busting drugs and treatments that reduce the risk of future strokes, OHSU provides a full array of advanced stroke treatments. This includes carotid stents, carotid endarectomies, aneurysm clipping and coiling, as well as recovery in our state-of-the-art Neurosciences Intensive Care Unit.

OHSU also meets the rigorous standards laid out by the Joint Commission for Certified Comprehensive Stroke Centers for each of the 600 ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke patients we care for each year. And the OHSU Telemedicine Network extends stroke treatment expertise to more than 150 patients at community hospitals throughout Oregon each year. This allows patients to receive specialty stroke care more quickly and reduces unnecessary and expensive patient transfers by 40 percent. In addition, 40 percent of these telestroke patients receive advanced stroke treatments such as t-PA and/or clot removal procedures because their hospital is connected to OHSU’s stroke neurologists via telemedicine.

These efforts, along with the recognition we receive from both the AHA/ASA and the Joint Commission, confirms that OHSU consistently provides the highest standard of care for stroke patients.




Karen Ellmers, R.N., M.S., C.C.N.S.
OHSU Stroke Program Coordinator

New stroke guidelines may help women reduce their risk

Stroke has a big impact, no matter your sex. Yet stroke affects more women than men: According to the American Heart and American Stroke Associations, of the 6.8 million stroke survivors in America, 3 million are men, and 3.8 million are women.

Stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death for men—and the third-leading cause for women.

For the first time, the American Heart and American Stroke Associations have released a set of stroke guidelines that describe stroke risks specific to women and suggestions on how to address them:

  • Pregnancy’s role: If you are pregnant and have moderately or severely high blood pressure, talk to your doctor about possible medication. Those with a history of high blood pressure should be considered for low-dose aspirin and/or calcium supplements to lower preeclampsia risks. Women who’ve had preeclampsia have twice the risk of stroke and four times the risk of high blood pressure over their lifetimes.
  • Pill risk: Get screened for high blood pressure before taking birth control pills, because high blood pressure, along with the pill, may increase stroke risk.
  • Migraine hazard: Women who have migraine headaches with aura should quit smoking to avoid a higher stroke risk.
  • Don’t skip a beat: If you are older than age 75, get screened for an irregular heartbeat, as there is a link between atrial fibrillation and stroke risk.

Obesity can also increase your stroke risk because of the effects that go along with it, such as an elevated blood sugar, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, which can add up to the metabolic syndrome.

These new guidelines don’t rule out existing recommendations given to both men and women: Manage your blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as issues like heart conditions or diabetes. Lifestyle choices remain important—exercising at least 30 minutes a day, eating healthy foods, avoiding excessive alcohol and quitting smoking.

And, even if you have one or more of these newly defined risk factors in your life, it doesn’t mean agonizing. If you have any one of them, it doesn’t mean you’re going to have a stroke, but when combined with other risk factors, it’s something you should discuss with your primary care provider.

The OHSU Stroke Center provides advanced stroke prevention care as well as the highest levels of acute stroke treatment. OHSU has received certification as a Comprehensive Stroke Center, the first such center in the Pacific Northwest.

Order your FREE stroke prevention packet here.


Helmi Lutsep. M.D.
Vice Chair and Dixon Term Professor of Neurology

Dr. Lutsep completed her medical degree and neurology residency at the Mayo Clinic. She pursued fellowships in behavioral neurology at the University of California, Davis and in cerebrovascular disease at Stanford University. Her clinical area of focus is stroke prevention and acute stroke treatment. 


Teenagers must understand their own brain — a work in progress

The adolescent brain is a work in progress. The teenage years entail immense responsibility. At 15, many face a rigorous course load of honors classes. At 16, a teen can legally getbehind the wheel of a car, and at 17 many are nearing full independence — sometimes abusing this independence with decisions like unhealthy diet, lack of sleep, and binge drinking.

Yet, even as teenagers take on the daunting task of adulthood at age 18, their brains are still years from being fully developed. Without the information about this critical time of brain development, some students are destroying the brain cells they will need for the rest of their lives and threatening the long-term health of their brain. Sadly, while some teenagers are behaving in ways that may ultimately catalyze severe mental health disorders, others endure taunting and teasing from their peers for pre-existing brain-based conditions. This very bullying has been proven to be a major contributor to depression, anxiety and other brain-based conditions, creating a vicious cycle of ignorance, bullying, and distress to the brain.

Over the course of the past year, I’ve encountered these issues by attending various lectures, reading countless books, and watching a multitude of YouTube videos on the adolescent brain. Most had titles along the lines of “What Every Parent Should Know about Their Teen’s Brain” or “How Educators can Better Teach The Adolescent Brain.” In all my research, never once did I stumble upon information designated for teenagers to understand their own brain.

As a 17-year-old student, I felt like an imposter sneaking into seminars clearly directed at an 18 and older audience, where researchers and scientists would inform adults about how they can better understand the psyche of the child, student or rambunctious teenager in their life. However, my sense of isolationism was soon replaced by the realization that I deserved to know what was occurring in my brain and understand the way that my behavior today can change my tomorrow.

As each book came to a close or each lecture moved into its Q & A Session, the only questions I could bring myself to ask were “Why is it that this information about my age group is rarely provided to my age group?” and “How could we close the divide between the scientific community and the teenage community?” I started to contemplate this question: With bullying growing as an epidemic everyday in middle schools and high schools across the nation, don’t teenagers deserve a biological perspective on the brain that is a nonjudgmental way of helping them understand more about themselves and others?

Bobby Heagerty

Together, Bobby Heagerty, director of neuroscience community affairs and education at the Oregon Health & Science University Brain Institute, Kellen Voss, a post-doctoral researcher in OHSU’s Department of Neurology, and I have been working to answer these questions. The outcome has been the launch of a brain awareness campaign and club at my school in Southwest Portland, Riverdale High School. Riverdale prides itself on embracing those who don’t fit the “mold” of the average student, and in turn it attracts students from all ranges of learning capacities and welcomes a host of students with psychiatric disorders, learning disabilities, and general psychological or neurological “quirks.” The Brain Awareness Campaign will work to eliminate the stigma around these quirks, through a two-faceted program that promotes acceptance and education of brain-based disorders.

The first facet of the program is acceptance, which we will achieve by implementing community-building events that are open to everyone, a buddy system that pairs upperclassmen in leadership roles to underclassmen struggling with a neurological impairment, and annual awareness campaigns, such as brain awareness week, mental health month and more.

The second facet, education, will work to mitigate bullying that derives from a widespread ignorance of what each student may be up against. Already, students participating in the Brain Awareness Campaign at Riverdale have spent lunch periods researching the latest breakthroughs in the mental health community and discussing the controversial developments in the treatment of conditions ranging from ADHD to Autism.

In the club’s preliminary meetings, students have dug through the most ground-breaking articles, provided by OHSU’s databases and Portland State University’s library, and discovered fascinating brain and mental health statistics to be written on posters and posted around the school. As students returned to school in the fall, the club has honed in on a different brain-based disorder every month, meeting each week to uncover the latest findings on the condition and discuss how the brain-based disorder emerges and impacts the affected. We will examine how the illness or disorder is being approached by the scientific community, and consider how the treatment of people living with the disorder, both medical and personal, can be optimized.

Adolescence is a time for surging emotions, unruly hormonal behavior and massive changes to the growing brain. In other words, it’s a challenging time for the healthiest brain. In this time of impulsivity, it is comforting to know that there is a rational force behind the tantrums, the breakdowns and the mood swings: science. It is vital that students understand that the boy with the angry disposition may be suffering from the onset of bipolar disorder or that the girl with the quiet demeanor may be clinically depressed. It is imperative that middle school and high school students alike understand that neglecting to eat healthy and exercise, stressing excessively, and abusing drugs and alcohol today could lead to the onset of brain-based disorders tomorrow. They need to understand the importance of adequate sleep in the prevention of serious mental illness.

While many neurological conditions are genetic and cannot be attributed to the actions of the affected, there is much teenagers can do to protect their brain during a critical time of development. You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to know that teenagers don’t listen to adults. The Brain Awareness Club provides an avenue for teenagers to educate teenagers.



Sophie Hamilton
Senior, Riverdale High School, Portland
Student Advisor, OHSU Brain Institute


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