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Decision Making Process: Complete guide

Remember the time when you had to make a difficult decision and it ended up being the right one? Well, what was the process your brain went through in order to make that decision? In this article, we’ll find out about what is decision making process is and how it works, what parts of the brain are involved, and what happens when we change decisions.

Decision Making Process

What is the decision making process?

In psychology, the decision making process also spelled like decision-making process and decisionmaking process involves the cognitive processes that lead to a selection, belief, or action that has at least one other possibility. Essentially, to choose between one thing and another. Each decision making process leads to a final choice, of which may or may not later lead to an action. The decision making process is essentially the process of identifying and choosing something using values, beliefs, and preferences of the person making the decision.

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One of the first records of our decision making process dates back to the 17th century by a mathematician, Blaise Pascal, who theorized that we calculate the “expected value” of something by multiplying the value (how much we need or want it) by the probability that we might be able to get it. The decision making process today comes from and is highly studied in psychology and neuroscience- both systemic neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience.

The decision making process

There is a 7-step process involved in the decision making process.

  • Step 1: Identify the decision. This is the step when you realize that a decision needs to be made. For example, “Should I order some take-out Chinese food tonight?”
  • Step 2: Collect relevant information. This second step involves gathering information that is essential and important to the decision before the decision is made. This information includes: what information is needed, the sources to get the information from, and then how to get the information. This second step uses both internal and external effort. The internal effort involves finding information through a process of self-assessment. The external effort comes from finding the information from outside sources like books, other people, and the internet. For example, finding a Chinese food restaurant that meets your needs.
  • Step 3: Identify the alternatives. This third step involves the likelihood that you have found other possible choices to make the decision. This step means using creativity and finding desirable alternatives. For example, realizing you could also go to the restaurant to pick-up the food, or even order something different, such as Italian food.
  • Step 4: Weigh the evidence. Using the information gathered and the emotions that you have, this step involves imagining each alternative to the choice until the effects of the decision wear off and are no longer effective. It’s essential to think about whether or not the need in Step 1 will be met or figured out by each alternative. During the process of Step 4 and weighing the evidence and options, your brain will begin to favor those that have a higher potential for reaching your end goal. At the end of Step 4, the alternate choices will be ordered based on your own value system. For example, if by getting the Chinese food as delivery, I won’t need to leave home. However, it would be healthier to walk to the restaurant a few blocks away and get the food.
  • Step 5: Choose among the alternatives. Once all of the evidence is weighed, Step 5 kicks in and finalizes the choices. This means that your choice is made. For example, deciding to walk to the restaurant to pick up the take-out order.
  • Step 6: Taking action. By taking action in Step 6, you’re simply implementing and putting into action the choice in Step 5. For example, walking to the restaurant to pick up the food.
  • Step 7: Reviewing the decision and its consequences. This means the decision is made and it’s time to evaluate whether or not the need in Step 1 was met or not. For example, the fact that you know have Chinese food take-out for dinner tonight means that the decision was successful.
Decision Making Process

Types of decision making processes

When making a decision, there are different things that happen and things to consider:

  • the level of the decision
  • the style
  • the process.

The level of the decision can be simple or complex. It’s easy to find this out by asking:

  • to who is this decision important?
  • how bad would it be if the decision made is a bad decision?
  • will the decision become more or less important in the future?
  • how urgent or important is the issue at this very moment?

The style of the decision can be changed due to participation. Whether that means involving more people, bringing in a third party, or simply making the decision on your own, it’s important to think about who will be involved in the decision. Questions to ask could be:

  • to what degree should others be involved?
  • under what conditions would participation work best?

The decision making processes can vary between rationalist and classical, to less structured and subjective methods. Humans can be rational beings, but it’s the factors which determine the decision that isn’t always rational.

Decision making process: What happens to the brain when we make decisions?

When we make decisions, our anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), orbitofrontal cortex, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex are all used. People who have damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or the anterior cingulate cortex can have a hard time making decisions. According to a neuroimaging study, these parts of the brain all light up in different ways when a decision is made depending on it the person is deciding voluntarily (I want to go to bed early tonight) or following directions from someone else (coffee or tea?).

When studying the decision making process, a common technique is to use the two-alternative forced choice task (2AFC). This task involves choosing between two alternative options within a certain amount of time. It was found in one study that the neurons within a rhesus monkey’s brain represent the not only the decision, but also the degree of certainty and confidence that go along with the decision.

There is a theory in neuroscience that the decision making process network in our brain isn’t able to prioritize. Essentially, every day we are faced with a multitude of decisions with so much information that we have no energy left to deal with the important decisions. Think about how much time you spend trying to decide what to have for dinner.

Parts of the brain involved in decision making process

Positive and negative decisions

That 17th-century mathematician, Blaise Pascal, was right in that our brains have a two-pronged decision making process that way the value of something and the probability of having it. In both positive decisions and negative decisions, our brain works in a similar way. For a while, it was thought that our brain’s representation of value and probability were found in the same single part of the brain. Now, thanks for research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai,  it’s been found that there are two different parts of the brain which are separate both functionally and anatomically that play a part in our decision “weighing” process with value and probability.

Depression and anxiety are set apart by changes in how people process rewards and make decisions. Sometimes, a change in decision making can be so extreme that some people are unable to lead normal lives because of it. It’s crucial that we study what parts of the brain are involved in helping us make decisions based on value and probability to be able to understand how debilitating disorders, like depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia are caused.

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex are the two parts of the brain that make up the prefrontal cortex. It has been known for awhile that these two parts of the brain are essential and highly connected in our decision making process. Research now shows that both parts of the prefrontal cortex send connections and messages to another part of the frontal lobe known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC). Some brain imaging studies have theorized that our choices are ultimately made in our VMPFC.

Addiction and decision making process

In the scientific fields of addiction, there are a growing number of researchers that believe that addiction is an obsessive habit of poor decision making which is caused by interactions between several different brain regions that are responsible for making decisions based on potential outcomes.

Alain Dagher, a researcher from McGill University, is hoping to change that belief to focus on addiction and cravings being an abnormality in the decision making regions of the brain. Dagher’s research shows that craving a drug, like nicotine, can light up when using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). The degree of nicotine addiction, and thus cravings, was reflected by the intensity of illumination in the fMRI. The overall results were successful in predicting the addictive behavior and smoking habits.

When the brain is trying to determine the cost and value of certain actions, thinking of the “value” of smoking that cigarette activates the decision making areas of the brain- is addicted to nicotine, for example. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is found to regulate cigarette cravings in response to smoking cues. Essentially, addiction may be the result of odd or uncommon connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the other parts of the brain in people who are more prone to addictive behavior.

Decision making process in management

According to professor Paul Nutt at Ohio State University, only about 50% of the decisions made in the workplace were the “right’ decision. Science says that an effective management practice is to vary in decision making styles, depending on the situation. A model thought up in the 1970’s from Yale professors is called the Vroom-Yetton Decision Making Model. This model summarizes different approaches to management and decisions as a manager. There is also another model, known as the Tannenbaum and Schmidt Model that considers the importance of human participation in the decision.

Decision making process: What happens when we change decisions?

Scientists have discovered that our ability to stop or modify a planned behavior comes from a single region within the brain’s prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain that involves planning and other higher mental purposes. However, last-minute decision making is scientifically proven to be different than scientists previously thought. It involves neural coordination and communication between multiple areas of the brain.

In a study done at Johns Hopkins Medical School that used functional magnetic resonance imaging, a method that is able to monitor brain activity in real time found that changing and reversing decisions requires communication between two zones within the prefrontal cortex and the frontal eye field. The frontal eye field is an area that controls visual awareness and eye movements.This means that changing our minds, even a simple millisecond after making a decision, can be too late to alter the behavior or movement. According to the head researcher, if we change our minds within about 100 milliseconds after making a decision, it’s easy to reverse our decision. After 200 milliseconds, the decision becomes much harder to change and reverse. The study also found that the longer it takes to make a decision, the harder the decision is to be reversed.

Ways and tips to improve your decision making process

Making a decision requires both prediction and judgment. Here are a few ways to improve your decision making process all-around:

  • Be less certain. Being overconfident isn’t universal- it is dependent upon personality and culture. However, some scientists claim that the chances are good that you’re more confident about each step in the decision making process than perhaps you should be. Reevaluating your overconfidence means you can reevaluate the logic of your decision. While it’s not always possible to be right, it’s always possible to be overconfident.
  • How often does it normally happen? This idea in research, also known as the base rate, suggests that this is the best starting point for predictions. Predictions being a key element in the decision making process. Asking how often something happens is important. For example, if starting your own business, it’s important to ask, “how often do startups fail?”
  • Thinking about probability. Research shows that someone with simple, basic training in probability make better predictions and they avoid some certain cognitive biases. Being good with probability also helps one express uncertainty and be able to think numerically better.
  • Narrow down the options. If there are a lot of options, cross out the options that aren’t feasible or really wanted in order to make room for more important decisions. Narrowing is easier on our brain to process.
  • Build upon your past. We have all made bad decisions before and have, hopefully, learned from them since. It can be helpful to think about a past decision that went badly and apply what you learned from that decision to the decision needing to be made now.
  • Ask others. Other people can be helpful when making a decision because they can be more unbiased than you may be about a certain decision. Sometimes letting someone else be the voice of reason is useful.
  • Practice mindfulness. Multiple studies have proven that practicing mindfulness meditation even just 15 minutes a day helps people make smarter choices. Mindfulness counteracts deep-rooted tendencies. This is due to the fact that mindfulness helps people think in the present. One study found that people who practiced mindfulness for only a brief period of time were able to make more rational decisions by considering and weighing the information that was given in the present moment, which led them to more positive outcomes in the future.

How do you make decisions? Let us know in the comments below!

Brain seizures: When The Brain Has Too Much Energy

Brain seizures: Some of us have to deal with them every single day, whilst others can be witnesses of someone having a  brain seizure. Most commonly, people having to experience someone suffering from a brain seizure are overwhelmed when their loved ones jerk uncontrollably and subsequently lose consciousness. Not only are the witnesses clueless about which steps to take, but also the patients if his/her seizure occurs for the first time. This article will give you a guide on what brain seizures are, their symptoms, treatments and what steps to take in order to increase the quality of life of the patient. 

What are brain seizures?

What are brain seizures?

Brain seizures are changes in the brain’s electrical activity. This change can cause dramatic, noticeable symptoms or it may not cause any symptoms. Patients that experience brain seizures possess abnormal neural activity which is uncontrolled and happens spontaneously.

The brain function, however, is often not abnormal. The involuntary change in neural activity is considered epilepsy, in which the brain seizures are the symptoms. Though, brain seizures can also be induced in a normal brain under a variety of conditions different species, from humans to flies. Brain function is not abnormal but cognitive aspects might be threatened by many brain seizures.

Brain Seizures Types

Generally, we differentiate between three different types of seizures. Usually, they are dependent on the number of brain cells showing abnormal activity. This is crucial in order to select a suitable treatment for the patient, as different medications have to be used for each seizure type.

  1. Generalized onset brain seizures: In this case, there is no identifiable onset meaning a starting point in the brain cannot be determined. The seizure starts and spreads too quickly making a reliable decision about the trigger impossible. For this reason, treatment using surgery to suppress the symptoms is not available.
  2. Focal onset brain seizures: Whereas in generalized onset seizures the location is not known, in this type of brain seizure, doctors are able to determine the starting point of the seizures. Focal brain seizures can start in one area of the brain or in a specific group of cells either in the left or right hemisphere. Furthermore, patients can have full or impaired awareness during their fit.
  3. Unknown onset brain seizures: If the nature of the seizure cannot be determined, they belong to this group. This is mostly at the beginning or if the patient lives alone without witnesses observing the person with the seizure. As more information is obtained, the seizure is later classified as generalized onset brain seizure or focal onset brain seizure.

How is a brain seizure caused?

Aspects of the brain affected by different brain seizure

The emergence of a brain seizure can be down to several reasons, but determining the exact cause has proven to be challenging. At least half of all patients display idiopathic seizures meaning the cause is unknown. Nevertheless, depending on the age of the patient, determining the trigger of a brain seizure can be narrowed down.

Generally, genetics plays a large role whether someone will experience a seizure in their lives or not. Pinpointing the specific genes which are responsible for the symptoms though is a struggle. This diagnosis is mostly very vague as the relationship between the genes in the brain and the nature of seizures is poorly understood.

What is known on the other hand is a prevalence of about 3 out of 10 patients having a change in brain structure which leads to some sort of brain seizure. Mostly this is the case for children born with alterations in brain regions.  For the elderly, incidence such as a stroke is usually the cause of developing recurrent seizures.

When suffering from epilepsy, an imbalance in the brain’s chemistry is frequently observed. This refers to the neurotransmitters being present in the wrong concentrations (too little or too much in the brain). In general, everybody has got two kinds of neurotransmitters with opposing functions: Neurotransmitter of excitatory and inhibitory qualities, with the former increasing the firing rate and the latter reducing the activity of the neurons. The balance of both kinds has to be maintained and if not given, can result in hyperactivity of the neurons causing epilepsy.

The best-studied neurotransmitter is GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, which possesses inhibitory qualities counterbalancing neuronal excitation. GABA’s counterpart glutamate, the principal excitatory neurotransmitter, plays a crucial role in the initiation and spread of brain seizures. This was demonstrated by During and Spencer in 1993 when they tested the concentration of these two neurotransmitters in the hippocampus before and during a seizure. Before seizures, the glutamate concentration in this brain area was found to be higher than in the control group, whereas the concentration of GABA was observed to be lower. During the seizure, GABA concentrations increased in both groups, however in the control group a greater increase was found. Consequently, drugs to treat epilepsy revolve around these two neurotransmitters, by either reducing the concentration of glutamate or by increasing GABA content in the synapses in order to reduce hyperactivity of the neurons.

Brain Seizures Symptoms

Clinicians group the symptoms into two categories, generalized and partial or focal seizures, in order to find out if a patient suffers from epilepsy.
The different types are:

Generalized brain seizures (produced by the whole brain)

  • “Grand Mal”: The most known form where the patient loses consciousness and collapses. The body stiffens and violent jerking begins usually lasting for about 30-60 seconds. Afterwards, the patient goes into deep sleep.
  • Absence: Individuals experiencing an absence seizure stare into space for a few seconds. They are most common in children and a brief loss of consciousness is reported.
  • Myoclonic: These seizures are brief, shock-like jerks or twitches of a muscle or a whole muscle group. This usually does not last for a long time (only about 1-2 seconds) and the person experiencing it retains full consciousness.
  • Clonic: This type of seizures is very similar to the myoclonic seizure with the difference of a more regular and sustained jerking.
  • Tonic: The muscle tone, the muscle’s normal tension at rest, is highly increased leading to tense feelings in arms, legs or body in general. Awareness usually does not change much and the symptoms subside within 20 seconds.
  • Atonic: Atonic seizures are substantially the opposite of tonic seizures. Instead of the muscles becoming stiff, a person experiencing an atonic seizure will feel their muscles going limp. For instance, a person standing might fall to the ground when suffering an atonic seizure. As tonic seizures, they do not last for a long time either.

Partial or Focal brain seizures

Focal brain seizures are known to originate from a specific brain region causing a variety of symptoms depending on the brain area affected. Generally, doctors differentiate between seizures causing a (partial) loss of consciousness and the ones where consciousness is preserved.

Symptoms of focal seizures with impaired awareness (once called complex partial seizures) could be the following:

  • Staring into space
  • Response to the environment is abnormal or impaired
  • Execution of repetitive movements (hand rubbing, chewing, walking in circles, etc…)

Symptoms of focal seizures without loss of consciousness (once called simple partial seizures):

  • Change of emotions
  • Difference in perception
  • Involuntary jerking of a body part
  • Sensory symptoms (eg. tingling, dizziness and flashing lights)

Note: If an individual experiences seizures repeatedly (once a week or even once every single day), their symptoms will most likely remain similar.

Brain seizures: Diagnosis and what to expect when visiting a doctor?

If a person suffers from a brain seizure (or thinks they have suffered one), the first stop will be consulting your general practitioner. Make an appointment and if the seizure was witnessed by someone, ask this person to join.

Depending on the type of seizure, most likely you were unconscious which makes it difficult for you to describe what happened. However, the doctor will ask you a series of questions, also called the medical interview, in which he will ask you about your general health and incidences before, during and after the seizure. Especially for the medical interview, it is advisable to have someone near you answer questions which you might not be able to answer.

The doctor will most likely be able to diagnose a brain seizure based on the answers of the patient. However, to obtain a clearer idea of the clinical picture of the patient, more tests will be necessary.

The primary physician will ask a neurologist to take a look at the inside of the individual’s brain. Every single brain is different and finding the most suitable treatment for a patient is far from straightforward. The following tests are used when attempting to diagnose brain seizures in detail:

  • Blood tests: The most common blood test is the CBC (Complete Blood count) in which the doctor determines important parameters in your blood, e.g the number of red blood cells, white blood cells, hemoglobin, etc. Therefore a blood test serves to determine the appropriate medication for infections, allergies, and other abnormalities are revealed.
  • Metabolic tests: This test assesses the functioning of your organs, more specifically your body’s ability to metabolize. The evaluation is also done via a blood sample and includes an assessment of the content of important molecules in your blood. The sodium, potassium and blood sugar levels are evaluated. Not only will this help determine an electrolyte imbalance, but also reveal any malfunction of the kidney or the liver. The importance of looking at these organs is to find out whether a disease could trigger the brain seizures, which was found to be the case for instance in patients with diabetes. In this case, doctors focus on treating the symptoms of the illness causing the brain seizures (in this case diabetes) rather prescribing drugs targeting the brain seizures directly.
  • An EEG (electroencephalography) test: The term might sound familiar to most of us, but what is this exactly and how can it help doctors make a more accurate diagnosis? An EEG can reveal the electrical activity of the brain and in which regions abnormal/normal activity is present. The specialists can make conclusions if the brain seizures come from a single area or are more widespread looking at the EEG pattern.
  • CT and MRI scan: Computer Tomography (CT) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) are two techniques that will look into your brain. The aim here is to find physical abnormalities that cause the seizures. Although for a lot of people suffering from brain seizures the test results will be negative, it is still an important procedure. In cases where brain seizures are very frequent and strong, determining the exact cause is crucial since the possibility to undergo surgery could be an adequate treatment option.

What to do and not to do when faced with a brain seizure?

If we see our loved-ones suffering from a seizure, it would be normal to be frightened and expect the worst. However, most brain seizures are not dangerous and the person regains his/her normal state within a few minutes without permanent damage. Fact is: Once a seizure is going, you cannot simply force the person to stop jerking, however, you can protect the person inflicting damage to his own body.

The DO’S!

  • Make sure other people are not standing too close to the person having a seizure
  • Remove sharp or hard objects from the surroundings
  • Do not stop the movements of your friend
  • Take a look at his/her watch to record the seizure duration
  • To keep the airway clear, put the person on his/her side
  • And most importantly: Keep calm!

The DONT’S!

  • Do not restrain the person as you might injure him or get injured yourself
  • No offering of food or drinks to the sufferer: A sip of water might be a trigger for choking
  • Do not insert anything into his/her mouth! They will not swallow their tongue
  • No CPR (unless the patient is not breathing after the seizure)

Tips to reduce brain seizures

Since the underlying trigger for a brain seizure is often unknown, it is crucial to reduce the odds of a brain seizure to a minimum. Take the following provisions:

  • Reduce stress by getting enough sleep (it is best to adhere to a regular sleeping schedule)
  • Physical activity or yoga may help feeling more relaxed, as well as deep breathing
  • Limit noise sources and make sure the room is well illuminated when watching TV or when playing video games
  • When going for a run you should do it in the park, rather than in high-traffic areas or unpaved trails
  • But most importantly: Stick to your medication your doctor prescribed you unless he/she tells you otherwise!

Have you witnessed a brain seizure or are you suffering from this condition? Please feel free to comment below.

Phantom Pain: The Feeling Is As Real As It Can Get!

Phantom pain is a sensation that various individuals perceive towards a part of the body or an internal organ that doesn’t exist. This phantom pain occurs usually when people undergo an amputation surgery. In other cases, it can also happen from birth, in those who are born with a birth defect or a congenital disorder. Sometimes, phantom pains can appear as a result of an injury to the spinal cord or avulsion. Avulsion means that a structure of the body becomes disconnected from the body. This can happen due to a surgical procedure or because of trauma when body parts like ears become removed from the body.

Some people may experience phantom pain for just a short amount of time. The pain will leave by itself eventually. On the other hand, other people might suffer for a long time. The pain is intense and extreme and they keep on suffering. If you or anybody you know might be experiencing phantom pain, do let your doctor know. A physician will be able to reduce the symptoms and provide treatment. And the sooner you get treatment for phantom pain, the better.

Phantom Pain

What is Phantom Pain?

What science knows of so far is that the majority of the people who lose a limb as a result of an accident, surgery etc. will experience a phantom limb.

This very realistic perception that the limb is still there happens quite often, apart from that it can still cause pain to those who experience it.

However, what is interesting about the phantom limb pain, is that one doesn’t necessarily need to have had a surgery to experience the effects. Maybe not the full effects and the full experience of what a real phantom pain feels like, but it can definitely come close enough. In order to understand the following example and the phantom pain, we need to say a few words about body proprioception and body ownership.

Phantom pain: Proprioception and body ownership

Body proprioception is the way we perceive each and every single one of our body parts. We know where our body parts are located to a relative degree. We are also able to subconsciously understand how strong we are which helps us with motor skills and movement. Concepts like muscle memory, hand-eye coordination are quite common in the everyday language. Both of them come from this sense of ownership of what each and every single one of us is.

Some scientists even call proprioception as the sixth sense. The other five senses that we know of – touch, hearing, sight, smell, and taste – provide us with the information from the outside world. Because of the five senses, we are able to perceive the world around us as a unified concept. In an everyday life we don’t just experience one thing at a time, however a multi-sensory integration of all. Proprioception, however, comes from the inside. Scientists call it the sixth sense because people are able to sense what is going on inside our bodies. We know the stimuli that start within our bodies, we understand our relative position in space, our range of motion and our equilibrium. We are aware of our limbs and body parts.

When we pass through a crowded area, we turn at the right moment and attempt to make ourselves smaller. We do that due to the fact that we subconsciously know how much space we occupy. We know that if we go straight on we will hit that nice lady on the left. If we move a little bit to the right, however, we will push the man in the hat who is reading his newspaper. We understand all of this because of proprioception.

Now that we understand a little bit more about body ownership and how we perceive ourselves, it’s time to go back to the example.

Phantom pain: Rubber Hand Illusion

As we have established, phantom pain involves vivid sensations in a lost limb. The general public, however, is able to experience similar sensations without losing a limb. Rubber hand illusion has a lot to do with that concept of proprioception and body ownership and you will see the link with the phantom pain in just a bit.

Ehrsson colleagues in their 2004 study explored the ownership that we as people have of our hands. We know that the hands we are looking at are ours. We can move them in every way possible, we can control the fingers, move each hand individually or clap them together. It is fully ours. Could we trick the brain into thinking another hand could be ours too? That’s the basic concept of the rubber hand illusion.

Phantom pain: Body ownership?

The illusion itself is quite ingenious. The participant will have to place both of their hands on the table, one on each side of a screen. The screen blocks the participant from seeing the left hand outside of the screen. A realistic looking rubber hand goes inside the screen. When the participant looks at the table, he or she will see their real right hand on the table and beside it the left rubber hand because their real left hand is on the outside of the screen, invisible to them. After this, the real experiment begins. The researcher will start by slowly stroking the rubber hand and the hidden left hand with a small brush. He does so in similar strokes on both hands, on the same finger and at the same pace.

The subject will see the scientists stroking the rubber hand but also feel the same stroke on their hidden left hand. After this goes on for a few minutes, the subject will start feeling like the rubber hand is part of their own body and he or she feels the strokes on the rubber hand. The scientist usually ends the illusion by hitting the rubber hand with the small hammer. Interestingly enough, the participant will usually flinch or let out a shock sound due to the fact that they truly felt like the rubber hand was their own.

This rubber hand illusion is a very common one among scientists and brings a lot of insight into our own view of body ownership. Do we really know that much about ourselves? How do we create our self-image? And what does it say about people who experience phantom pain?

Phantom pain: a little background

According to the analysis by Weinstein SM, the first mention of the phantom limb pain occurred in the 16th century, by Ambrose Pare who happened to be a military surgeon.

Elan D. Louis and George K. York in mentioned that the term ‘phantom limb pain’ was coined by Weir Mitchell, who also happened to be a surgeon but at a different timeline. In the 19th century, he practiced during a Civil War and managed to give a description of phantom pain in detail.

Phantom Pain types

Phantom pain can appear in a variety of different ways and it’s important to recognize and understand the differences between them. Identifying what it is will surely help with faster diagnosis and an easier and faster approach to treatment. The differences might come from the variation in sensations that a person might feel.

  • Movement perception where the limb used to be
  • Noticing the weight of the phantom limb
  • Feeling the length of the phantom limb.
  • Feeling different senses where the phantom limb is situated – itchiness, touch, pressure.

As you can see, there are no clear cut differences between types of phantom limbs. Those who suffer from it may experience a variety of things. Sensations help us differentiate between the different types of phantom pain.

Phantom pain: Signs and Symptoms

Phantom Pain

There is a variety of symptoms that can pop up as a result of phantom pain. As mentioned before, the majority of the people will experience some symptoms if they have an amputation surgery. The sensations that can occur during the phantom limb experience include but are not limited to:

  • Warmth
  • Coldness
  • Tingling
  • Itchiness

These sensations are phantom limb sensations and are quite common after an operation. Phantom pain is a bit more severe. Just feeling pain from where the amputation occurred is not a symptom of phantom pain.

When the pain feels like it comes from a part of the body that doesn’t exist anymore, that’s what we call phantom pain. Few things can signify the appearance of phantom pain:

  • It can be prolonged or it can show up and leave at any moment.
  • It happens very shortly after the amputation occurs.
  • People describe the pain as pulsating and vibrating and burning.
  • People feel the phantom limb being put at an angle that bothers them and a position that brings discomfort.
  • The phantom pain usually happens in the part of the body that seems to be the most remote one from the body. Common examples include a leg or a foot
  • The phantom pain can be the cause of stress
  • The phantom pain can start as a result of pressure upon the limb that is left-over after the surgery.

Phantom pain: Causes and Risk Factors

As we mentioned before, the main risk factor for phantom pain still is surgery that results in amputation. The origin of the sensation of phantom pain, however, still remains a mystery. We do not know where it comes from, however, scientists speculate the involvement of certain brain regions and the spinal cord specifically.

Phantom pain: Causes

Different studies have used a variety of neuroimaging methods in order to see the activity that happens during a phantom pain sensation. They were able to discover certain brain areas of interest. A bit of a disturbance between brain connections in the brain might be the reason for the origin of a phantom brain. The signals can become mixed up together due to a sudden loss of a body part and the loss of input from that area. A lot of scientists put it down toward neuroplasticity that has gone wrong. Due to the fact that the brain and the spinal cord stop receiving input from a certain area, the brain tries to compensate and realize what happens and triggers a pain sensation in the lost limb.

Of course, we cannot forget about certain physiological factors like scar tissue, memory of the pain before the amputation and the damage done to nerve endings in the affected area.

Phantom pain: Risk factors

Apart from the obvious amputation surgery, there are a few other risk factors that can play a role in developing phantom pain. Doctors during the surgery should be aware of these risk factors and attempt to minimize the potential for developing phantom pain.

  • Stump pain: a lot of stump pain can contribute to the development of phantom pain due to the damage to the nerve endings.
  • Bad prosthetics: your doctor needs to show you the correct way to utilize the prosthetics. He needs to make sure it fits you and you know all the little details about it.
  • Painful sensations before the surgery: people are more likely to develop phantom pain if they experience pain in the limb beforehand; remembering that pain can contribute significantly to it.

Phantom pain and the Nervous system

In order to understand phantom pain, understanding of the nervous system is important. Many scientists believe that neuroplasticity plays a big role in the development of phantom pain.

Neuroplasticity is quite a famous concept nowadays and a lot of research goes into it. It talks about how the brain is able to form new connections between neurons over the course of a lifetime. Neuroplasticity seems to be responsible for the compensatory effect of diseases and injuries. It allows the brain to re-adjust the functions and certain stimuli responses that come from the outside. Wall and his colleagues explored the notion of neuroplasticity in their 1977 study. They found that the receptive field of certain neurons changes after partial cut off from the nerve supply. Many other studies show the reorganization of the somatosensory cortex following denervation or some sort of damage. That’s why many scientists believe in neuroplasticity as one of the major contributors to the formation of phantom pain.

Neuroplasticity is supposed to lead to benefits and good reorganization in the brain. Many scientists believe that in phantom pain specifically neuroplasticity becomes maladaptive.

Other scientists disagree with the neuroplasticity view. Makin and colleagues in their 2013 study say that plasticity as a result of phantom pain and not the other way around. They looked at different individuals with amputations who have phantom pain. They found that these people actually have very strong cortical representations of the lost limb. Furthermore, they could not find re-organization of cortical representations. In fact, they found that the differences between the brains of amputees and those of non-amputees do not differ and showed similar brain activity. Of course, the sensorimotor cortex played a big role and Makin and colleagues mention it. They say that certain disconnection showed up between the parts responsible for touch and movement processing and some sensorimotor cortex parts and it linked to phantom pain.

Phantom pain: Peripheral Nervous System

Various studies mention the role of the peripheral nervous system in the formation of phantom pain. The nerve endings are disconnected during an amputation surgery. Because of this, neurons become injured and the input to the spinal cord doesn’t work properly anymore. Certain changes happen in the spinal cord. The disconnected nerves cause certain hyper-excitability and this could potentially cause phantom pain.

Phantom pain treatment

There is a variety of different therapeutic techniques that can decrease the symptoms of phantom pain and help cure it. Certain pharmacotherapy approaches should be looked at.

First of all, analgesia and anesthetics should be used before the surgery.  This could prevent the phantom pain from appearing in the first place. It could also decrease the symptoms due to the patient remembering the pain.

Here are some of the most common drugs used for the treatment of phantom pain. Make sure to consult with your physician before taking any medication!

  • Anti-inflammatory drugs: some of the most common medications for phantom pain. These drugs are involved in various brain pathways (e.g. serotonin)
  • Opioids: these drugs are able to bind with central and peripheral postsynaptic opioid receptors and they are able to provide pain relief. Can also help with the side effects of neuroplasticity that are believed to play a role in phantom pain.
  • Tricyclic antidepressants: these drugs can cause pain relief due to the fact that they affect hormones that send out pain signals.
  • Anticonvulsants: these drugs are used for seizures but they can help with nerve damage and pain.

Non-pharmacologically, patients may undergo mirror therapy proposed by Ramachandran and Rogers-Ramachandran in their 1996 study. In this technique patients will attempt to restore the proper visual and proprioceptive disengagement that happens in the brain. Surgical intervention may be needed if all other therapeutic strategies fail.

Phantom Pain: Life style and caring

It can be quite difficult living with constant pain in the lost limb. There are certain steps you can take if you or a loved one are experiencing the symptoms. These steps might be able to reduce the symptoms or at least distract you enough until you get proper treatment.

  • Support: it is very crucial to provide support for somebody who is experiencing phantom pain. Treat as if it’s real pain because to them it is very real.
  • Relax: engage in activities that can help you beat the stress and reduce muscle tension. Activities that make you happy.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Other people might be a valuable asset in distracting you from problems.
  • Do not forget your medication
  • Exercise: engage in physical activities like walking, cycling, dancing, swimming – whatever you enjoy.
  • Distract yourself: yet again, engage in activities that you love and that make you happy
  • Take care of the stump: follow your doctor’s instructions in order to let the stump properly heal.

Hope you enjoyed this article, please feel free to leave a comment below!

Synesthesia: Can You Hear Colors?

What is it like to hear colors and see sounds – people who have synesthesia might be able to give a little insight into that. Imagine the world full of new possibilities, sounds, images, and tastes. The way you are able to perceive and sense nature is so different from everybody else. You can say that the sky tastes like plums. When you hear Vivaldi’s four seasons on the piano, vibrant colors appear from every possible direction, representing spring, summer, fall, and winter. You are able to differentiate months of the year by colors and different smells by taste. Some of these are just examples. If you are able to relate to any of them, you might have synesthesia.

What is synesthesia?

Synesthesia

Scientists consider synesthesia to be a neurological and perceptual condition. It comes from Greek words that represent ‘togetherness and sensation’.  It is quite extraordinary and brings a whole different understanding to what surrounds us. In fact, people who have synesthesia most often than not, embrace it. They do not want to ‘cure’ the condition, per say. To them, the world is full of tastes and colors and sounds, depending on their particular type of synesthesia, of course. That’s how they’ve always experienced the world. They understand that Monday to have a green color, but Saturday more of a purple one and it makes sense to them.

Imagine looking at the sun each and every day and seeing that it’s yellow and one day wakes up and realize it’s a bland gray. That’s what it would be like for a synesthetic to lose their sense and understanding of the world. They would not only be very confused for a long period of time. No, despite that, they’d probably also feel sadness and grief for the loss of all of the beautiful imagery, sounds smell and touch that they will never experience again.

It’s quite difficult to understand synesthesia without experiencing it. A sky that tastes like blueberries or colors appearing when you hear music? That sounds crazy to anybody who has not experienced it themselves. Synesthesia, however, is not limited to just these people though. A lot of researchers looked into synesthetic occurrences in the regular population. These studies found that many are actually able to experience synesthesia. Sometimes they don’t even realize they are doing it.

Perhaps, in order to understand it better, you should experience a little touch of what synesthesia can be. This is what scientists call the McGurk effect

The McGurk effect

For a very long time, researchers understood speech as an auditory perception only. Now know the McGurk effect where there is an interplay between auditory and visual stimuli in the perception of speech. It is somewhat an illusion. Scientists, Harry McGurk and John Macdonald coined the effect in their 1976 study. It seems to be that when speech is paired with visual stimuli, a very extraordinary multi-sensory illusion happens.

They achieved this surprising effect by making a recording of a person voicing a consonant. After that they put the recording with a face, however, that face was expressing a different consonant. When the voice recording was heard by itself, the participants recognized it for what it was. However, when McGurk and Macdonald paired the voice recording along with a face expressing an incongruent sound – the participants heard a different sound. That sound ended up being the combination of the voice recording and the visual face articulation. The McGurk effect shows an absolutely astounding example of multisensory integration and how both, visual and auditory information can integrate and result in a unified experience.

If you can imagine, a lot of researchers found the illusion quite interesting and attempted to replicate it with different populations and conditions. What they found was quite astounding. Summerfield & McGrath found in their 1984 study that the effect happens with the use of vowels and not just consonants. The McGurk effect is present in pre linguistic infants according to the 1997 study by Rosenblum, Schmuckler & Johnson. Astonishingly enough, the effect even worked across a variety of languages which Massaro, Cohen, Gesi and Heredia showed in their 1992 study.

Synesthesia and the McGurk effect

It seems that even people who do not have the condition fall for the McGurk effect. The effect is very strong. Even when you know what to expect from it, you still cannot change it. When you think about it, it makes sense. The world we live in is full of senses and a variety of experiences. We do not just perceive sound by itself, or cannot look at something in a complete silence. There is always an ongoing integration of senses that happens all around us. It is no wonder that sometimes in our lives we are able to experience a synesthetic episode.

Types of Synesthesia

Synesthesia can appear in a variety of forms and types. In fact, researchers have been able to find over seventy types of synesthesia. We characterize the different varieties by what type of sensation they are able to cause and where that sensation came from. Here are some of the more common ones:

  • Number-Form Synesthesia: those who have this type of synesthesia are able to perceive numbers as mental maps. That means that these people will put the numbers in certain positions in space that will form a mental map. Whenever a person thinks of a number, a mental map will appear in their mind. Francis Galton introduced this type in his ‘The visions of sane persons’ work.
  • Lexical-Gustatory Synesthesia: people with this type will experience different tastes that correspond to specific words or phonemes. Badminton could taste like mashed potatoes but suitcase will taste like a chocolate cake. Quite a fun type, this one!
  • Grapheme Synesthesia: this one emerges with perceiving numbers and letters as different colors. This is one of the most common types of synesthesia. Interestingly enough, different people experience different colors in association with numbers and letters. Some commonalities occur. Letter ‘A’ often appears red for some reason.
  • Personification: A variety of ordered sequences will show up as different personalities. For example, Friday can be a happy go-lucky girl who enjoys dancing while Monday is an angry and bitter old man. Do you see any connection with real life?
  • Chromesthesia: people perceive sounds as a variety of colors. There is a variety of different experiences within this type with some people only perceiving colors during spoken speech and others seeing them during musical pieces. This type is quite common among musicians.
  • Misophonia: this one is not a particularly nice type of synesthesia. People who have this type experience very negative emotions when it comes to sounds. Examples of experienced emotions can be anger, disgust, sadness etc. Fortunately, this is one of the rarer types and it happens due to a disturbance between the limbic system and the auditory cortex.
  • Mirror-touch-pain Synesthesia: these people will experience a sensation of touch when they see somebody else being touched. The pain type can experience pain in a similar way when they see somebody else in pain. Researchers have linked this particular type of synesthesia with mirror neurons and regions responsible for empathy in the brain.

There are many other types of synesthesia. If you think you might be experiencing synesthesia but did not find your specific type above, you can type in your symptoms into google search, and sure enough, there will be somebody else with similar symptoms.

Synesthesia: Diagnostic Criteria

Synesthesia

Up to this date, there is no clear cut method for diagnosing synesthesia. Certain criteria exist that specialists adopt in order to help with the diagnosis. Keep in mind, however, that some of the leading scientists and researchers do not follow these criteria. Despite that, it gives at least a little bit of guidance in diagnosing synesthesia.

Symptoms

  • Projection: people will see the sensations outside of their body (hearing sounds outside during a musical piece)
  • Memory: associations that the synesthetic has will stick with him and will often overpower new associations that he or she might experience in the course of a lifetime.
  • Involuntary: sensations happen without the control of these people
  • Emotion: sensations can be perceived either positively or negatively.
  • Duration: the perceptions have to be stable and unchangeable.

Synesthesia and the Brain

Synesthesia

The original cause for synesthesia is still unknown. Due to such a variation in types of synesthesia, it is quite difficult to generalize brain studies to all of the different types. The brain uses different parts of the brain for the processing of different senses, therefore, with such a large variety of synesthesia types, an involvement of different brain parts happens. Researchers have to study each type separately and see whether there are some similarities between them. Some studies reported the activity in the superior posterior parietal cortex in relation with the grapheme-color synesthesia. Both visual cortex and the auditory cortex are activated during the McGurk effect because we are both listening and seeing at the same time.

The consensus among scientists is that depending on the type of synesthesia, the brain regions responsible for that sense will activate. What we speculate is that the uniqueness of synesthesia comes from a different way of network connections within the brain. Baron-Cohen and colleagues mention the excessive quantity of neuronal connections in the brain of synesthetics. According to him, during normal perceptual experiences, we have different brain areas for different senses and a different perception. The connection between those areas is present but is restricted. However, when you have synesthesia, your brain develops more connections between different neurons. This makes the restrictions between the areas to disappear and leads to synesthesia.

Peter Grossenbacher, on the other hand, says that the feedback communications are not subdued in a way that it happens in normal perception. The information that is processed from areas responsible for high-level of processing is not able to come back to each signified area. Instead of different senses going back to areas responsible for single senses, they mix together, allowing synesthesia.

Ramachandran and Hubbard support the increase in neural connection theory, but they also add that it happens due to the fact that the pruning between different sensory modalities is decreased.

Pruning is the removal process of the synaptic connections and more neurons in order to enhance the work of already existing neural transmissions.

Synesthesia and Genetics

Some studies have found a genetic link with the development of synesthesia. Asher and colleagues claim there is a link between auditory-visual synesthesia and certain chromosomes. Due to previous research suggesting a familial trend and a genetic factor helping in the development of synesthesia, they decided to look at 43 different families who had it. They found four different types of loci that could cause the variation in brain development in the brain of those who have the condition. What is interesting is that one of the genes that they identified, might be important for pruning.

Thomsen and colleagues focused on different genetic components. This leads to a variety of scientists to believe that synesthesia occurs due to a combination of a variety of genes.

Famous people throughout history with Synesthesia

Synesthesia is more common than some people believe. In fact, a variety of famous people are believed to have had this condition.

  • Vincent Van Gogh: chromesthesia
  • Lorde: music –> color
  • Vladimir Nabokov: grapheme -> color
  • Pharrell Williams: chromesthesia
  • Stevie Wonder: chromesthesia
  • Billy Joel: chromesthesia, grapheme-> color
  • Duke Ellington: chromesthesia

Prevalence

As mentioned before, diagnosis synesthesia is quite difficult so knowing its prevalence can bring some challenges as well. Before people used to think that the condition is quite rare, however, nowadays we know that it is a lot more common. Simner and colleagues in their 2006 study investigated the overall population. They found that around 1% of the population have the grapheme-color type. Around 5% have some sort of type of synesthesia. Due to the difficulty of diagnosis, this could be a very low account of the overall numbers, however.

Synesthesia is very common and a lot of people might have it. Family members, friends, co-workers, and classmates. Even you might have some sort of type of synesthesia and not know about it!

Neuroimaging: What is it and how can it map the brain?

One of the ways psychology has progressed came from the use of various neuroimaging methods. In terms of experimental psychology history, neuroimaging started with the cognitive revolution. Many scientists realized that understanding the brain plays an enormous role in the external behavior.  Scientists also use neuroimaging methods and technique prevention, diagnosis and treatment for different neurological diseases.

Today we still do not have a clear cut picture of the whole brain in itself. Not every network has been mapped, but we have moved forward a substantial amount. The development of non-invasive and invasive neuroimaging methods and their use for research and medical purposes was a definite breakthrough.

Neuroimaging

Neuroimaging-What can we map?

When one thinks about the brain and the nervous system, one can think of many things to map. Of course, we have the brain itself, its parts and the functions of the anatomical functions. We have neuroimaging techniques who deal exactly with that. Despite the anatomy, however, there are many neuroimaging methods that try to look at things on a more microscopic level.

We have methods that can view the cortical areas of the brain. Other techniques look at cortical columns and different layers. We have methods that can record a single cell by itself. Going even further, we can look at the soma of the neuron, the dendrite and, separately the axons. We can even look at the synaptic connections between the two neurons.

Neuroimaging- Method Classification

Neuroimaging methods also do not just encompass the spatial resolution. We try to look into proteins, organelles, bacteria, mammalian cells, the brain of various species and, finally, human brains. Many neuroimaging methods also differ by the temporal resolution. They differ by how quickly they are able to detect an event that happens in the brain. These neuroimaging methods differ by milliseconds, seconds, minutes, hours and days. They also differ by the spatial resolution. Some methods can show anatomical structures well, while others cannot. Apart from that, the variety of the neuroimaging methods differs by how non-invasive and invasive they are.

If one can imagine, scientists use a lot more non-invasive neuroimaging methods in research. Not many regular participants agree to something that can potentially alter their brain functions. Medical practitioners are a lot more likely to use invasive neuroimaging methods in an attempt to treat certain diseases. Various patients with neurological diseases benefit on a daily basis from the invasive neurological methods. In some cases, the patients themselves are able to control the stimulating method.

Electrophysiological techniques

For many years now we know that neurons are able to generate electric potentials. We also know that the synaptic activity of the nervous matter is similar to a battery. It acts as an electric generator.

If we recall the first class in physiology we took, we can roughly remember the structure of the neuron. Words like the cell body or the soma, dendrites and an axon come to mind. Dendrites seem to be able to receive electrical signals. Axon sends electrical signals to the dendrite of the next neuron. The cell body combines the signals from the previous neurons. Then it sends another signal along the axon for the next neuron.

Within the neurons themselves, we are able to distinguish two different types of electrical activity.

1-Action potentials

The action potential is a very common concept that many students learn in their first class on the nervous system. The entire process happens for about 1 ms and culminates with the release of neurotransmitters in the end of the axons.

  • The stimulus from a previous neuron activates the voltage gates on sodium channels which will cause the influx of positively charged sodium to the cell.
  • This depolarizes the membrane. Sometimes the depolarization of the membrane is able to reach the threshold.
  • If that happens, a series of events happen in order to send the signal along the axon to the next neuron. This is what we call an action potential.
  • The potassium channels are still closed and since we have an influx of sodium, the membrane becomes more positive on the inside then it does on the outside.
  • After that, the channels for sodium close and, therefore, the influx of sodium stops as well.
  • That’s when the potassium channels stay open and the potassium comes out of the cell and makes the inside of the cell negative one more time. This repolarization of the neuron can lead to the overall voltage to be below the original resting potential
  • This happens due to the fact that the potassium channels stay open a little longer. This ends in hyperpolarization. During this period a new action potential cannot happen and this is what we call a refractory period of the neuron.
    • Scientists cannot record action potentials via surface electrodes. As of today, we are not able to record potentials from a single neuron. What we can record is the second type of electrical activity. We can, however, use intracranial electroencephalography (EEG) to measure them which happens to be an invasive technique.

2- Post-synaptic potentials

They last for hundreds of milliseconds and it is the addition of the potential from various neurons that happen at the same time. We are able to record the potentials together. Researchers can easily record these potentials from surface electrodes. Electroencephalography (EEG) can measure these types of potentials.

So, in the end, we are able to distinguish two principal types of neuroimaging methods that measure the electrical activity of the neuron.

Two principal types of electrophysiological techniques

  • Single-cell recordings
    • These recordings are able to measure a number of different action potentials every second. The electrodes will be place inside a single cell or nearby a neuron which makes the technique invasive.
    • This technique can be useful for researchers who want to understand how single cells work.
    • Due to the fact that this technique allows measuring single neurons, we are able to see how specific these cells are.
    • A paper published saying that single neurons were firing to Jennifer’s Aniston’s face and nobody else’s. This level of object recognition falls under very high-level vision neurons and the paper gained a lot of attention due to such a strange working of a single neuron. (1)
  • Event-related potentials (ERP)
    • These recordings get the summation of different electrical potentials for a variety of neurons (millions of them). This technique places electrodes on the skull, therefore, they are surface electrodes.

Electroencephalography & Event-Related Potentials (ERP)

Since we now know that the brain produces electrical potentials, we are able to measure them. Electroencephalography helps us do that. Scientists can place various electrodes on the surface of the scalp and then measure the bio-electrical activity that the brain produces. Event-related potentials (ERP) are the potentials from various neurons that happen as a result of different stimuli given by the scientist to the participant. Stimuli and the tasks that the researchers assign can range from motor, to sensory and cognitive.

So the scientists are able to measure where and when the neurons will spike as a result of a certain assigned stimuli. Researchers have been able to find various ERP components or similarly distributed neurons that fire at the same time. They found various ERP components related to language, visual attention, auditory components (famous concepts like the mismatch negativity) and many others.

Other neuroimaging methods

Magnetoencephalography (MEG)

Neuroimaging methods don’t just stop at measuring the electrical activity of the neurons. Another famous brain imaging technique is MEG – it records magnetic fields. Electrical currents that already occur in the brain generate magnetic fields. MEG is able to directly measure the brain function which is a huge advantage when comparing it with other techniques. Apart from that, it has very high temporal resolution and high spatial resolution which is one of the rarest things when it comes to brain research. Usually, neuroimaging methods are either higher in spatial resolution or in temporal resolution, not both.

MEG is non-invasive. Scientists are able to use it with other neuroimaging methods at the same time – like EEG. One big disadvantage of MEG comes from the fact that in order to get the magnetic fields, a special room that gets rid of other types of magnetic interference needs to be built. Due to this, the machine is quite costly, but one of the best methods for measuring brain activity as of today.

Other famous types of brain imaging do not measure direct brain activity, however, they have quite good spatial resolution and are often used for clinical and diagnostic purposes.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET)

This technique gives an image of brain activity, however, in order to produce that image radioactive material needs to be either inhaled or injected by the participant. The image will then be produced due to this radioactive material going to the areas of the brain that are active.

Computed Tomography Scan (CT Scan)

This technique is able to produce brain images as well. It is able to show the anatomy of the brain, however, not the functions themselves which are a serious drawback especially if we consider the fact that X-ray lights need to go through the head to produce the image.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

MRI – Neuroimaging

One of the most common techniques nowadays. It gives an image of anatomical structures in the brain. It is non-invasive, but the patient must remain still in the MRI chamber which could prove to be quite painful for those suffering from claustrophobia. Apart from that, any type of metallic devices cannot be put in the chamber so many patients and subjects are not able to get a scan.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)

An upgrade from the MRI – this technique detects the blood-oxygen-level dependent contrast imaging (BOLD) levels in the brain which are the changes in the blood flow and it not only gives the anatomical structures but the functions as well. Various colors will change depending on which part of the brain is active. The big drawback with this technique is the fact that it does not directly measure brain activity, but BOLD signal so we cannot for sure say that the activity that we find via fMRI studies is fully accurate and is produced by neurons.

Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI)

A technique based on MRI and it measures the way the water can travel through the white matter in the brain. It can show the activity as the colored area on the image. It’s very good in detecting concussions so can be used in clinical applications which is a huge advantage. Again, it does not measure direct brain activity which is a huge disadvantage and sometimes it also distorts the images. DTI has a quite low spatial resolution.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

The electric field that TMS is able to generate is able to interfere with the action potentials that are happening in the brain. It’s a highly invasive technique and is able to be used in research applications for the workings of many diseases and pathologies. What we do know is that repetitive TMS is able to produce seizures so, obviously, it has some sort of side effects and needs to be used with caution.

Neuroimaging- New Developments in Neuroscience

New neuroimaging methods and brain imaging techniques are being developed nowadays and, perhaps, soon enough we will be able to not only map the entire anatomical structures of the brain but functions as well. As of right now, these are the majority of the neuroimaging methods that are used in cognitive neuroscience. Maybe, in a few years, we will be able to develop a low-cost neuroimaging technique that has both high spatial and temporal resolution and is non-invasive to the participants!

References

Quiroga RQ, Reddy L, Kreiman G, Koch C, Fried I. Invariant visual representation by single neurons in the human brain. Nature [Internet]. 2005;435(7045):1102–7. Available from: http://www.nature.com.zorac.aub.aau.dk/nature/journal/v435/n7045/abs/nature03687.html%5Cnhttp://www.nature.com.zorac.aub.aau.dk/nature/journal/v435/n7045/pdf/nature03687.pdf

Mirror neurons: The most powerful learning tool

Mirror neurons. Imitation has always been a powerful learning tool. The human brain is enabled with different mechanisms that allow us to imitate actions. Babies are capable of reproducing facial expressions, and as adults, we imitate basic behavior. Laughter can be spread, we can cry while watching a sad movie… It seems like we have the capacity to feel what others feel, empathize with them and understand their feelings. What happens in the brain for this to happen? The answer is mirror neurons. In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about mirror neurons. What are they? How do they intervene in education and empathy? Why is emotion contagious? 

What are Mirror Neurons? Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

What are Mirror Neurons?

In humans and primate species there are neurons called Mirror Neurons. These brain cells activate when we see someone doing something. For example, when a chimpanzee sees its mother opening a nut with a rock and then tries to imitate her with another nut. Mirror neurons are related with empathic, social and imitations behavior. They are a fundamental tool for learning.

“We are social beings. Our survival depends on our understanding the actions, intentions, and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to understand other people’s mind, not only through conceptual reasoning but through imitation. Feeling, not thinking.”- G.Rizzolatti.

In the 90’s a group of neuroscientists, directed by Giacomo Rizzolatti from the University of Parma (Italy), discovered something surprising. A hundred group of neurons in the brain in primates were activated not only when the monkey was doing something but also when the monkey saw another one doing that same action.

Mirror neurons can be defined as a group of neurons that activate when we perform an action or when we see an action being performed. 

Mirror neurons are essential for imitation which is key in the learning process. From birth these group of neurons are active and it allows us to learn to eat, dress, speak… Mirror neurons are also important in planning our actions as well as understanding intentions behind actions.

In the next video, Ramachandran a neuroscientist, explains what are mirror neurons and why they are important.

Mirror Neurons and Education

Mirror neurons allow us to learn through imitation. They enable us to reflect body language, facial expressions, and emotions. Mirror neurons play an essential part in our social life. They are key for the child development, as well as relationships and education.

Humans are social beings programmed to learn from others. We all reach our goals working as a group than individually. Seeing a parent, professor or student show a cognitive skill or any other skill, gives us a tangible experience rather than learning from explanation.

How do mirror neurons intervene in our daily lives?

  • Mirror neurons are responsible for yawning when we see someone else yawn.
  • These neurons also act when we see someone sad or crying and in turn feel sad.
  • The same thing happens with smiling or laughing. The way laughter can be contagious.
  • Studies suggest that there is an activation of the anterior insula when we see someone expressing disgust.
  • Another study shows that the somatosensory cortex is activated when we see someone touching another person the same way it activates when we are the ones being touched.

8 tips: How do mirror neurons influence education?

Thanks to mirror neurons the emotions we portray have a direct influence on others. This is why teachers have to make the effort to control their emotions, avoid teacher burnout, in order to use mirror neurons as an asset.

  1. Show happiness and optimism and that way you will transmit that to your students and children.
  2. Control and avoid negative emotions. We all have bad days but teachers have to be sure this doesn’t reflect on the children. However, the tricky part is that this doesn’t mean children should repress these emotions. As a teacher be sure to detect what emotion the child is feeling and help them learn to identify and manage them accordingly.
  3. Use visual signs and imitation any chance you get. Make examples practical with physical demonstrations so that children can imitate you.
  4. Encourage group interactions. This will maximize the use of mirror neurons and therefore the child’s social relationships and empathy.
  5. Use imitation in any activity that you want the children to learn (washing teeth, cleaning up after themselves…)
  6. Run from violence. Children learn what they see. If a child is educated in a hostile environment, his mirror neurons will activate and he might repeat these violent behaviors.
  7. Teach children the importance of how we listen, particularly body language. That way when someone has to share something or needs help the mirror neurons will activate and empathy will be reinforced.
  8. Teach children about emotional intelligence so that they can be able to identify their own and other people’s emotions.

Mirror Neurons and Emotional Contagion

Do you feel happy when people around you are happy? Do you get sad or depressed around negative and pessimistic people? This is due to the emotional contagion produced by the mirror neurons.

Emotional Contagion is a process through which a person or group influence the emotions and emotional behavior of another person or group. This can be done through emotional induction conscious or unconscious.

When people communicate they have the tendency to imitate gestures and facial expressions and in many cases feel what others are feeling. It has been proven the high impact emotional contagion has in our personal and work relationships. We are still not conscious of the influential ability we have in other people’s emotional state and in turn other people on our own emotional state.

Mirror neurons allow us to literally feel what others are feeling and “live” their emotions. Mirror neurons are based on empathy.

Empathy is the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.

This is proof that we are social beings. Empathy has been essential to our species survival and shows how without attachments and protection we wouldn’t have survived.

How can we take advantage of emotional contagion?

The fact that we can interconnect to each other and understand each other’s feelings can work to our advantage.

  • Happiness is more contagious than sadness, so try to surround yourself with happy people. However, don’t avoid people who are sad, we all need support sometimes and giving them love might help them recover faster.
  • Imitate happy and positive people, do what they do. Practice sports and smile more (even if you don’t feel like it, you will later feel better). Keep a healthy self-esteem and stop thinking negatively.
  • Think before acting or saying anything, especially if its negative. Try to say it politely, educated and as calmly as possible since your emotional state can be contagious.

Check out how laughter can be contagious with this video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fM45JMTpkBU

Mirror Neurons and Culture

Does culture influence our brain? The answer seems to be yes. According to an investigation from the University of California, mirror neurons respond differently if the person in front of us shares our same culture or not.

Researchers used two actors, one American and another Nicaraguan to show a group of American participants a series of gestures (some American, others Nicaraguan and others without cultural meaning).

With Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) they investigated mirror neuron activities. They found that participants showed more activity when they saw the American do the gestures in comparison to the Nicaraguan. When the Nicaraguan showed American gestures to the group, the mirror neurons decreased their activity drastically.

It’s possible to conclude that mirror neurons are influenced by culture and in turn have an influence on our behavior. The results from this study show us that we are more prepared to understand and empathize with members of our own culture and ethnicity than those who are not. This also explains why we connect faster and easier with members of our own culture.

Mirror Neurons, empathy, and psychopathy

Psychopathy is a personality disorder distinguished by a superficial charm, pathological lies, and low empathy.

It’s common for psychopaths to lead a criminal life, however, not all become, serial killers or murderers. Some can actually lead a normal life.

If these psychopaths are not capable of empathizing, does that mean their mirror neurons are not working? A recent study answered this question.

Researchers observed the brain activity of two groups (18 psychopaths and 26 healthy people) while they watched short videos. The videos showed images of hands touching, gently, painfully, socially, rejecting each other and neutrally. They were instructed to watch the video and then to try to feel what the people were feeling. The next part of the study the participants were hit with a ruler to register their pain area in the brain.

Scientists found that only when psychopaths were asked to feel something did they actually feel something, mirror neurons even activated the same way as in the other group. However, when no instruction was given, the psychopath’s group showed less activation of the mirror neurons and pain receptors of the brain.

It’s not that psychopaths don’t have empathy, it’s that it’s a switch that can be activated and deactivated, and by default, it is always deactivated.

Mirror Neurons and Autism

Symptoms of autism include a delay in language and strained emotional recognition. They are not capable of perceiving different emotions, including their own.

Scientists, therefore, studied the mirror neurons in people with autism to check if they were “broken”. They found that the system has a developmental delay, where the activity is slower, weaker and less activated than in others. Nonetheless, the activity increases with age and by age 30 it becomes normal and then unusually elevated.

Other studies have discovered that not all people with autism have a delay in these neurons. They can be activated normally by familiar faces.

Hope you found this article interesting. Please leave a comment below!

References

Molnar-Szakacs, I., Wu, A. D., Robles, F. J., & Iacoboni, M. (2007). Do you see what I mean? Corticospinal excitability during observation of culture-specific gestures. PLoS One, 2(7), e626.

Meffert, H., Gazzola, V., den Boer, J. A., Bartels, A. A., & Keysers, C. (2013). Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy. Brain, 136(8), 2550-2562.

This article is originally in Spanish written by Andrea García Cerdán, translated by Alejandra Salazar.

Fight or Flight: All You Need to Know About This Response

Fight or Flight. The sympathetic nervous system is one of two subdivisions of the autonomic nervous system, which is part of the peripheral nervous system. All of these subdivisions may seem confusing, but all you need to know about the sympathetic nervous system starts with the peripheral nervous system.

Fight or Flight

CNS vs. PNS

For starters, the nervous system has two main divisions consisting of the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The central nervous system is arguably easy to wrap your head around because it consists of just the brain and the spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system is comprised of everything other than the brain and spinal cord.

Due to how vague the definition of the PNS is, it has to be broken down into multiple different subsets. The two main divisions of the PNS are the somatic and autonomic nervous systems.

The somatic nervous system is also considered the voluntary nervous system because it allows us to interact with our external environment. This is done through voluntary movement of skeletal muscles and our senses.

The autonomic nervous system regulates our internal environment or controls the body functions that we do not have conscious control over. This is a rather complex task as well, so the autonomic nervous system has two subdivisions known as the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system controls our “fight or flight” response to a dangerous event, but it is also active at a baseline level in order to maintain our body’s homeostasis. The parasympathetic nervous system is the complimentary partner to the sympathetic nervous system. After experiencing a “fight or flight” response, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over in a “rest and digest” response. This allows the body to return to rest.

Fight or Flight: Functions

Fight or Flight

Now that we have a handle on where the sympathetic nervous system lies within the complex wiring of the complete nervous system, we can look at its specific functions.

Traditionally, we experience fight of flight when presented with harmful or life-threatening situations. Our body reacts in ways that can either help up flee the situation, or power through and fight the situation.

The fight or flight response is the primary process of the sympathetic nervous system. It allows us to handle stressful situations by suppressing non-vital bodily functions and enhancing survival functions. During a fight or flight response digestion is slowed or halted. This allows for the energy and resources normally used in digestion to be repurposed to increasing heart rate, getting more oxygen-rich blood to muscles, or dilating pupils.

Our bodies are able to make this response through two pathways. One pathway uses neurotransmitters, and other pathway uses hormones. The difference between a neurotransmitter and a hormone is a bit tricky to understand, especially when talking about the sympathetic nervous system. This is because the same chemical can be a neurotransmitter and a hormone.

What are the types of neurotransmitters

How is this possible? Well, a neurotransmitter is any chemical that is released from a neuron and travels across a synapse. A hormone is a chemical that is secreted from a gland.

Physiology of Fight or Flight

How does the sympathetic nervous system really impact your body? How do these messages get sent to the various parts of your body?

The First Basic Response Pathway

A two-neuron chain of signaling is required for almost every message that the autonomic nervous system relays. The first pathway is made up of the following: a preganglionic cell, a ganglion, a postganglionic axon, and an effector organ.

A preganglionic cell is a neuron that is rooted in the spinal cord. Its axon synapses onto a ganglion, which just a term for a cluster of neurons located in the PNS. From there the axon of the ganglion, referred to as the postganglionic axon, synapses onto the effector organ. An effector organ is any organ that can respond to stimulus from a nerve.

More on synapses 

What neurotransmitters are used in this pathway? The preganglionic axon releases acetylcholine, which binds to acetylcholine receptors on the ganglion. The postganglionic axon then releases norepinephrine onto the effector organ. The effector organ is then either stimulated or inhibited based on the receptors present. The receptors are what determine the action of the neurotransmitter.

The Second Basic Response Pathway

This pathway is referred to as the sympathoadrenal response. This pathway is made up of a preganglionic cell, the adrenal gland, blood vessels, and effector organs.

The preganglionic cell functions the same way as a preganglionic cell in the first response pathway functions. It is rooted in the spinal cord and has an axon that synapses, and releases acetylcholine, onto the next part of the pathway. However, in the sympathoadrenal response, the next part of the pathway is the adrenal gland.

The adrenal gland is made up of the adrenal medulla and the adrenal cortex. When acetylcholine is bound to receptors in the adrenal medulla, it signals hormones to be released into the bloodstream. These hormones are norepinephrine and epinephrine. These two hormones are also found in other parts of the body as neurotransmitters. Norepinephrine is even used as a neurotransmitter in the first pathway. However, as stated previously, the same chemical can be both a neurotransmitter and a hormone. It just depends on where it was released from!

When epinephrine and norepinephrine are released into the bloodstream, they have a wide spreading and fast impact on the effector organs. Just like the first pathway, the effector organ can either be stimulated or inhibited based on the receptors present.

Fight or Flight and Anxiety

Sympathetic Nervous System

In many cases, our bodies have not quite caught up with modern day events. The stress our ancestors experienced running away from predators is much different from the stress you feel before an exam. However, our bodies have a hard time differentiating types of stress.

These stresses that we face today are predominately psychological and unfortunately longer lasting than running from a predator. The danger with perceiving a modern situation as threatening and then subsequently activating your fight or flight response is that the response will be active as long as you feel threatened.

Anxiety has been linked to both the inappropriate triggering of the fight or flight response, as well as the length of time spent in the response state. Panic attack symptoms are very similar to the physiological changes that occur during fight or flight, and while the panic attack will eventually subside, this does not completely stop the fight or flight response.

You can still feel the emotional impact that an unwarranted fight or flight response has on you after the response has subsided. This can include worry and a heightened sense of danger. Unfortunately, this can have not only a psychological toll but a physiological toll as well.

The sympathetic nervous system is so good at redistributing energy to vital survival functions, but if this response stays on for too long, or is continually being stimulated, some health problems may arise.

Digestive problems can occur because the gastrointestinal tract is not getting enough oxygen-rich blood to do its job. Similar types of problems can arise with other parts of the body that are not getting enough blood flow.

It is important to engage in stress relieving activities, as well as relaxing in order to help your parasympathetic nervous system “rest and digest” to counteract “fight or flight”.

Synapses: How Your Brain Communicates

A synapse is the space between two neurons which allows for neural communication, or synaptic transmission. Synapses are found throughout the body, not just located in the brain. They project onto muscles to allow muscle contraction, as well as enable a multitude of other functions that the nervous system covers.

It might be helpful to familiarize yourself with neuron cell body and structure and function when understanding the synapse!

Synapses

Parts of a Synapse

As a synapse is the gap in between two neurons, we need to establish which neuron sends out the signals and which neuron receives those signals.

Parts of a Synapse: The Role of the Presynaptic Neuron

The presynaptic neuron is the neuron that initiates the signal. At many synapses in the body, presynaptic neurons are vesicles filled with neurotransmitters. When the presynaptic neuron is excited by an action potential, the electrical signal propagates along its axon towards the axon terminal. This excitation signals the vesicles in the presynaptic neuron, filled with neurotransmitters, to fuse with the membrane of the axon terminal. This fusion allows for the neurotransmitters to be dumped into the synaptic cleft.

Once the neurotransmitters are released, they can act on receptors on the postsynaptic neuron.

Types of neurotransmitters

Parts of a Synapse: The Role of the Postsynaptic Neuron

The postsynaptic neuron is the neuron that receives the signal. These signals are received by the neuron’s dendrites. When there are neurotransmitters present in the synapse, they travel across the gap in order to bind to receptors on the postsynaptic neuron. When a neurotransmitter binds to a receptor on the postsynaptic neuron’s dendrite, it can trigger an action potential. That action potential can then be propagated and influence further communication.

Where Are Synapses Located in the Brain?

Synapses are found throughout the nervous system. They allow for complex thought, coordinated movement, and most of our basic functions. Synapses are located in the brain and spinal cord, which make up the central nervous system, and the peripheral nervous system, which includes neural projections onto muscle cells.

The Neuromuscular Junction

A good example of the location of synapses in the body is the neuromuscular junction. A neuromuscular junction is made up of a motor neuron and a muscle fiber, which is part of the peripheral nervous system. In this case, there is no postsynaptic neuron, but the muscle fiber has a specialized area that acts synonymously to how a postsynaptic neuron would respond. This area is called the motor end plate and has receptors that bind with the neurotransmitters released into the synapse.

In a neuromuscular junction, presynaptic neurons release acetylcholine as the neurotransmitter. At the neuromuscular junction, acetylcholine excites the muscle fiber and causes muscle contraction.

The presynaptic neuron in the neuromuscular junction needed to be told to release acetylcholine into the synapse. This doesn’t occur through the neuron’s own volition, but rather through a series of other neurons communicating with each other through synapses.

What do Synapses do?

It has been established that synapses are important in neural communication, but what do synapses actually do? How do they really allow for neural communication, and who starts the conversation?

When introducing the role of the presynaptic neuron above, the excitative qualities of an action potential were mentioned. Action potentials are the way that neurons can send information they receive down their axons and, hopefully, initiate the continuation of the signal to another neuron. These action potentials are created by a depolarizing current.

Action potentials allow for electrical signals to be sent down a neuron’s axon, and then the signal can be transmitted to the other neurons by a synapse. As stated before by introducing the role of the presynaptic neuron, neurotransmitters are released into the synapse in order for the signal to be transmitted to the next neuron. The chemical release is then received by the postsynaptic neuron and then converted back into an electrical signal in order to reach other neurons.

Although, not all synapses function on chemical or neurotransmitter release. Many synapses in the brain are purely electrical.

Types of Synapses

In the nervous system there are two main types of synapses: chemical synapses and electrical synapses. Thus far, for simplicity and understanding the basics of how a synapse functions only chemical synapses have been discussed. This poses the question: why does the nervous system need two types of synapses?

Types of Synapses: Chemical Synapses

Chemical synapses are any type of synapse that uses neurotransmitters in order to conduct an impulse over the small gap in between the presynaptic and postsynaptic neurons. These types of synapses are not in physical contact with each other. Since the transmission of a signal depends on the release of chemicals, a signal can only flow in one direction. This direction is downward from presynaptic to the postsynaptic neuron. As previously stated, these types of neurons are widely spread throughout the body.

The chemicals released in these types of synapses ways excite the following neuron. The neurotransmitters can bind to the receptors on the postsynaptic neuron and have an inhibitory effect as well. When inhibition occurs, signal propagation is prevented from traveling to other neurons.

Chemical synapses are the most abundant type of synapse in the body. This is because various neurotransmitters and receptors are able to interpret signals in a large combination. For instance, a neurotransmitter and receptor combination may inhibit a signal on one postsynaptic neuron, but excite a large amount of other postsynaptic neurons. Chemical synapses allow for flexibility of signaling that makes it possible for humans to engage in high-level tasks. However, this flexibility comes at a cost. Chemical synapses have a delay due to the need for the neurotransmitter to diffuse across the synapse and bind to the postsynaptic neuron. This delay is very small but still is an important point when comparing the two types of synapses.

Types of Synapses: Electrical Synapses

Synapses

Electrical synapses are types of synapses that use electricity to conduct impulses from one neuron to the other. These synapses are in direct contact with each other through gap junctions. Gap junctions are low resistance bridges that make it possible for the continuation of an action potential to travel from a presynaptic neuron to a postsynaptic neuron.

Due to their physical contact, electrical synapses are able to send signals in both directions, unlike chemical synapses. Their physical contact and the use of sole electricity make it possible for electrical synapses to work extremely fast. Transmission is also simple and efficient at electrical synapses because the signal does not need to be converted.

Another key difference between chemical and electrical synapses is that electrical synapses can only be excitatory. Being excitatory means that an electrical synapse can only increase a neuron’s probability of firing an action potential. As opposed to being inhibitory, which means that it decreases a neuron’s probability of firing an action potential. This can only be done by neurotransmitters.

Despite being extremely fast, these types of excitatory signals can not be carried over great lengths. Electrical synapses are mainly concentrated in specialized brain areas where there is a need for very fast action.

The best example of this is the large amount of electrical synapses in the retina, the part of the eye that receives light. Vision and visual perception are our dominant senses, and our eyes are constantly receiving visual sensory information. This information also runs on a feedback loop when we interact with our environment, which means that we receive information from our surroundings and immediately create an appropriate response to it. This is why it makes sense that electrical synapses are seen in a large concentration here. The fast action, multiple directions, and efficiently all allow for prime functionality.

Synapses in Neuroscience

Understanding synapses allow neuroscientists to further understand how communication within the brain works. This is extremely important when trying to decipher causes, and eventually, develop treatments for neurological diseases and disorders.

Knowing about synapse function is not just beneficial to neuroscientists, it is beneficial for anyone with a brain! Increased synaptic density can improve the quality of life for anyone, it is essentially a tactic for making your brain work smarter.

Natural Ways to Improve Your Synapses

1. Reduce Stress

Too much stress, as well as long periods of stress, can have harmful impacts on the body, especially the brain and nervous system. By reducing stress, you are reducing the amount of cortisol that is circulating throughout your body. Cortisol is important if you need to outrun a bear, but elevated levels in your daily life can damage chemical synapses all over the body. Stress and aging are also closely related, so controlling your stress levels may help you prevent early aging.

Chemical synapses are susceptible to desensitization, which will occur is abnormally high concentrations of a neural transmitter are fighting to stimulate a neuron.

2. Stimulate Your Brain With CogniFit Brain Games and Cognitive Assessments

It is important, at any stage in life, to keep your brain stimulated. Our synapses play an important role in keeping our brains healthy and helping them improve over time, rather than fall victim to the natural cognitive decline that occurs as we age. With the consistent training and challenging of the brain, the synapses work to perform better and more efficiently, ultimately making it possible to improve the cognitive function that may have seemed lost. This is the idea behind brain or neuroplasticity and is the basis of CogniFit’s program.

CogniFit’s  brain training system works by adapting the games and tasks to each user’s cognitive level, ensuring that the brain, its neurons, and all of the synapses involved are being trained and challenged as efficiently as possible.

3. Exercise

Exercise is very important in keeping the brain healthy. People often get frustrated within the first few weeks of a new workout regime when physical changes are not yet visible. It turns out that the first changes of regular exercise are actually neurological, starting in the brain. Exercising promotes brain growth by increasing oxygen levels in the brain. Brain growth first starts at the synaptic level. Read more about the benefits of exercise on the brain!

Your Synapses

Hopefully, now that you’re familiar with the basic structure, ins and outs, functions, and types of synapses in the brain you can think about what is happening on a microscopic level to ensure your body is functioning at top notch. Small improvements on the synapse level can have a large effect on your overall health.

Test Yourself!

1. What is a presynaptic neuron?
2. What is a postsynaptic neuron?
3. What is one difference between an electrical and chemical synapse

How Well Do You Know Your Brain: What Is It?

The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It controls everything, from the way we walk to the way we speak. Its has captivated scientists for centuries, yet we know a lot less about the brain than we do about the heart, liver, or kidneys. Research on the brain has surged greatly in recent years, allowing us to understand more about being human. Though, many people don’t know the basics about how the brain works. How well do you know your brain?

How Well Do You Know Your Brain

What is the brain made of?

Each organ in our body is made of specialized cells that work together to make that organ work the way it does. In the brain, these cells are called nerve cells, or neurons.

Each neuron contains a bulb-like structure called the cell body. Protrusions off of the cell body are called dendrites, and these are the receivers of information from other neurons. The information from other cells travels down a long fiber called the axon, which is covered with fatty material called myelin that helps the electrical impulses travel faster. The axon ends by branching out into many nerve fibers (collectively called the axon terminal), which connect to other neurons to pass on information. But don’t be fooled- neurons don’t actually touch each other. Instead, they’re separated by a gap called the synapse. 

Information traveling through a neuron can be both electrical and chemical. Electrical impulses called action potentials travel down to the axon terminal and trigger these tiny packages called vesicles to open. These vesicles contain neurotransmitters that are released into the synapse to communicate with the next cell.

These neurotransmitters are key to everything about us. It coordinates so many things, from our happiness to the way we sleep. You may have heard of some them and their effects. For example, dopamine is known as the “pleasure neurotransmitter” because when released, it makes us feel pleasure and happiness. Many drugs actually cause the release of dopamine, which explains how people can get addicted to drugs, since we repeat behaviors that we find pleasure in. Another example is adrenaline, or the “fight or flight neurotransmitter.” In stressful situations, adrenaline increases heart rate and blood flow to allow you to physically deal with your stressor.

There you have it- the inner workings of the brain. But fear not! We’re far from over, there’s so much more to learn.

So, why is it important to know your brain?

As you can see, the brain is as complex as defining the word “the”. Scientists have been pouring themselves over understanding the brain, only to make discoveries that just barely scratch the surface. Understanding how the brain works helps us understand the things that make us human. Why do we feel a certain way when we’re in love? Why do some people have a harder time with depression than others? What causes happiness, pleasure, stress, and anxiety (understand your brain and stress)? Advancements in neuroscience bring us closer to these answers everyday.

Aren’t there different parts of the brain?

Yes! The idea that different areas of the brain have specific functions was gained in the late nineteenth century. Scientists were actually able to figure out what these functions were when they studied patients who had deficits. By the time that the twentieth century came around, they had detailed maps and functional descriptions of the brain’s areas.

It would take forever to go through all the areas of the brain and its functions, so let’s talk about the basics. Your brain is divided into 4 lobes that controls things like your thinking, movement, and your senses. Other structures below the cerebrum are responsible for life functions, such as breathing, heart rate, motor coordination and balance.

The Frontal Lobe

The frontal lobe is the frontmost part of your brain- hence the name! The frontal lobe actually has many functions, and damage to this area is known to cause some pretty diverse effects. The most famous story about damage to this area belongs to Phineas Gage, who’s damage to this lobe caused his personality to change. Besides personality, some of its functions include emotional control, concentration, planning, and problem solving. Towards the back of the lobe is the motor cortex, which controls the movement of everything in your body.

The Parietal Lobe

Located at the top of the head behind the frontal lobe, the parietal lobe deals with mainly sensory information. The somatosensory cortex, located towards the front of the lobe, is responsible for the perception of touch, pressure, and taste. The body’s sensory areas are actually organized along the cortex in a map called a homunculus, where different areas have different representations. For example, you have more sensation on your lips than your elbow because your lips have more representation in the cortex. The other parts of the lobe take in all the sensory information and integrate it to help us understand the world around us.

The Temporal Lobe

Located on the sides of the brain (behind the temples), this lobe is responsible for recognizing faces, monitoring emotions, and long-term memory. It’s biggest job is to make sense of all the auditory information that comes our way. More specifically, its important for the comprehension of meaningful speech. In fact, when damage to this area occurs, a person would have trouble understanding what is being said to them, or being able to speak properly.

The Occipital Lobe

Has your mother ever told you she had “eyes” in the back of her head? Well, she wasn’t completely lying. Located in the back, the occipital lobe integrates all the visual information coming in from the eyes. From the visual cortex, the information goes to different association areas that processes it. For example, when reading this article, the visual information is being sent to areas specialized for reading comprehension. Damage to this area can cause visual impairments, where you can’t process the visual information coming in from your eyes.

The Cerebellum

The cerebellum (Latin for “little brain”) is located on the brainstem where the spinal cord meets the brain. It takes in all the sensory information from other parts of the brain and uses it to coordinate our balance and movements. It also helps with motor learning, where its responsible for fine-tuning motor movements to make them smoother and more accurate. For example, if you were to learn how to hit a baseball, the cerebellum would act to find the best way to make your movements as smooth and coordinated as possible.

Fascinating Brain Facts part 2

Fascinating Facts About the Brain – Part 2

In part one of Fascinating Facts About the Brain, we looked at the complexity and main characteristics of the brain. We looked at the human brain size and established
that it is not correlated with intelligence. Let’s discover today more
fascinating facts about this incredible organ in the human body.

1. The human brain is
comprised of 60 percent fat. In fact, the brain is regarded as the fattest
organ in our entire bodies. This is the highest concentration of fat that is
present in a single organ in a healthy human being.

2. 75% of the total brain mass
is comprised of water. This water regulates various functions in the brain.
This is different from the “Water on the Brain” disease, known medically as
“hydrocephalus”. Hydrocephalus is a condition in which fluid
accumulates in the brain, typically in young children, enlarging the head and
sometimes causing brain damage.

3. Our brain consumes
approximately 20% of the energy in our body, more than any other organ. Because
the brain demands such high amounts of energy, the foods we consume greatly
affect brain function, including everything from learning and memory to
emotions. Just like other cells in the body, brain cells use a form of sugar
called glucose to fuel cellular activities. This energy comes from the foods we
consume daily and is regularly delivered to brain cells (called neurons)
through the blood.

4. We use 100% of our brains
to complete daily tasks like walking to work and breathing. Motor function,
speech, and other utilities of the brain require every square inch of the
cerebrum, cerebellum, frontal lobes, etc. Modern brain scans show activity
coursing through the entire organ, even when we’re resting. A 2013
survey
conducted by the Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) revealed that 65
percent of survey respondents were under the impression that humans only use 10
percent of their brains. This is a simply a myth.

5. There are on average 86
billion neurons in the human
brain, according to a 2009
study
published by Azevedo Fa. Prior to this study, neuroscientists would
say that there are about 100 billion neurons in the human brain. Interestingly,
no one had ever published a peer-reviewed
scientific paper
supporting that count. Rather it’s been informally
interpolated from other measurements. The neuron is the basic working unit of
the brain, a specialized cell designed to transmit information to other nerve
cells, muscle, or gland cells.

6. A newborn human baby’s
brain weighs approximately 350 to 400 grams (0.77 to 0.88 pound). At one year
of age the brain weighs 1,000 grams (1.2 pounds). By 2 years of age the brain
has reached 80 percent of its adult size. By 18 years of age the brain has
reached its adult weight of 1,500 grams (3.3 pounds).

7. There are 100,000 miles of
blood vessels inside our brains. A blood vessel is a tubular structure carrying
blood through the tissues and organs; a vein, artery, or capillary. Humans have
the largest brain to body ratio of any animal, and the blood vessels in the
brain.

5 Myths about the Brain

5 Myths about the Brain

5 Myths About the Brain

The brain is truly an amazing organ. It is extremely intricate, and without it, we would not be able to function. While the brain has many interesting facts about it, there are many misconceptions that seem to be accepted as fact. These brain myths are often exposed in our mainstream society. Some of these myths are completely wrong, and some of these are simply misinterpreted. Here are five interesting myths about the brain.

1. We Use 10% of Our Brains: This is arguably the biggest and most common misconception about the brain. It has been linked to many sources, including Albert Einstein. However his take on it was taken out of context. It is somewhat emphasized in mainstream media, and it is a sexy topic for cinema. Those are the reasons so many people believe it. In fact, some movies and books say if we access the other 90% of our brains, we can gain psychic abilities. Lets just say there is zero scientific evidence of that. The fact is we use every part of our brain virtually all the time, including when we are sleeping.

2. A Person is Either “Right Brained” or Left Brained”: With this myth, there many online quizzes you can take that tell you if you are “right brained or left brained.” According to this myth, right-brained people are supposedly more creative and artistic. On the other hand, left brained people are more logical and analytical. The fact is we use both sides of the brain equally, and the sides are co-dependent of each other.

3. Brain Damage is Permanent: This is only applicable if the brain is severely damaged. With severe damage, surgery is always required. However, with minor to moderate brain injuries, we can usually recover from them. Brain injury can be defined as an injury of the brain regardless of age at onset. Brain injuries can result in a substantial handicap to the person who sustained the brain injury and can cause various forms of cognitive impairments and symptoms such as concentration, memory or motor disorder. In most cases, people usually recover from a mild concussion.

4. Alcohol Destroys Brain Cells: Moderate alcohol intake doesn’t kill neurons, or even damage them. That’s because the amount of alcohol needed to kill brain cells would kill the person drinking it first! That doesn’t mean that alcohol can’t damage the brain, though. A high alcohol intake can have detrimental effects on the brain. Alcohol kills dendrites, which are connections of neurons that connect to other neurons. These dendrites help neurons send messages to each other. With the dendrites damaged, heavy drinkers cognitive abilities are impaired. However, these dendrites can be repaired with therapy.

5. Drug Use Can Lead to Having Holes in Your Brain: We have all seen the drug commercials about the debilitating effects they have on the brain. While severe drug use can have negative side-effects, it does not lead to having holes in your brain. This myth may have been created to scare people about the consequences of drug use. The truth is, only physical trauma can do this.

Newfound brain cells linked to high blood pressure

Newfound brain cells linked to high blood pressure.

High blood pressure has just gotten a new culprit: a newly discovered brain cell. While the usual suspects of heart risk — weight problems, stress, smoking, those salty slices of bacon — do contribute to high blood pressure, researchers think they’ve discovered a new cluster of neurons that also play a role.

Researchers from Sweden spotted the previously unknown cluster of nerve cells in the brains of mice, finding the cells affected the animals’ blood pressure and other cardiovascular functions. If these neurons also exist in human brains, scientists and doctors may have a new avenue for tackling hypertension (chronically high blood pressure) and other heart problems.

How to ‘take over’ a brain

How to ‘take over’ a brain.

The hottest field in science this past decade has been neuroscience. That explosion in research, and our understanding of the human brain, was largely fueled by a new technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that became widely available in the 1990s. Well look out! Another technology-based neuroscience revolution is in the making, this one perhaps even bigger. The term to watch for in 2013 is “optogenetics.” It’s not a sexy term, but it is a very sexy technology.

Optogenetics involves inserting fiber-optics tools into an animal’s brain, in order to control the target neurons using pulses of light as a trigger.

In order for the method to work, the neurons have to be re-engineered so that they react to the light. That was made possible by the amazing discovery of a kind of protein that can be used to turn neurons on and off in response to light.

The exotic light-sensitive protein is not present in normal neurons, so scientists designed a way to insert it. That is accomplished through a type of gene engineering called “transfection” that employs “vectors” such as viruses to infect the target neuron, and, once there, to insert genetic material that will cause the neuron to manufacture the light-sensitive protein.

Neuristors: The future of brain-like computer chips

Neuristors

Neuristors: The future of brain-like computer chips.

A neuristor is the simplest possible device that can capture the essential property of a neuron – that is, the ability to generate a spike or impulse of activity when some threshold is exceeded. A neuristor can be thought of as a slightly leaky balloon that receives inputs in the form of puffs of air. When its limit is reached, it pops. The only major difference is that more complex neuristors can repeat the process again and again, as long as spikes occur no faster than a certain recharge period known as the refractory period.

A neuristor uses a relatively simple electronic circuit to generate spikes. Incoming signals charge a capacitor that is placed in parallel with a device called a memristor.

The memristor behaves like a resistor except that once the small currents passing through it start to heat it up, its resistance rapidly drops off. When that happens, the charge built up on the capacitor by incoming spikes discharges, and there you have it – a spiking neuron comprised of just two elementary circuit elements.

How neuroscientists observe brains watching movies

How neuroscientists observe brains watching movies.

Functional MRI can peer inside your brain and watch you watching a YouTube clip. Unless you have been deaf and blind to the world over the past decade, you know that functional magnetic resonance brain imaging (fMRI) can look inside the skull of volunteers lying still inside the claustrophobic, coffinlike confines of a loud, banging magnetic scanner.

The technique relies on a fortuitous property of the blood supply to reveal regional activity. Active synapses and neurons consume power and therefore need more oxygen, which is delivered by the hemoglobin molecules inside the circulating red blood cells. When these molecules give off their oxygen to the surrounding tissue, they not only change color—from arterial red to venous blue—but also turn slightly magnetic.

Mouse brain cells activated, reactivated in learning and memory

Mouse brain cells activated, reactivated in learning and memory.

Neuroscientists have for the first time shown individual mouse brain cells being switched on during learning and later reactivated during memory recall.

“The exciting part is that we are now in a position to answer a fundamental question about memory,” Wiltgen said. “It’s been assumed for a long time that the hippocampus is essential for memory because it drives reactivation of neurons (nerve cells) in the cortex. The reason you can remember an event from your life is because the hippocampus is able to recreate the pattern of cortical activity that was there at the time.”

Brain cells made from urine

Brain cells made from urine.

Human excreta could be a powerful source of cells to study disease, bypassing some of the problems of using stem cells.

Some of the waste that humans flush away every day could become a powerful source of brain cells to study disease, and may even one day be used in therapies for neurodegenerative diseases. Scientists have found a relatively straightforward way to persuade the cells discarded in human urine to turn into valuable neurons.

New biomaterials can promote regeneration of brain tissue after brain injury and disease damage

New biomaterials can promote regeneration of brain tissue after brain injury and disease damage.

Research at the Universitat Politècnica de València has shown that a biocompatible material implanted in the brain is colonized within two months by neural cells and irrigated by new blood vessels. This allows the generation, within these structures, of new neurons and glia, capable of repairing injured brain tissue caused by trauma, stroke or neurodegenerative disease, among other causes.

World’s largest brain simulation has 2.5 million neurons

World’s largest brain simulation has 2.5 million neurons.

With 2.5 million simulated neurons, a team of researchers at the University of Waterloo have claimed the world’s largest functioning model of the brain.

Called Spaun (short for Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network), the model “captures biological details of each neuron, including which neurotransmitters are used, how voltages are generated in the cell, and how they communicate. Spaun uses this network of neurons to process visual images to control an arm that draws Spaun’s answers to perceptual, cognitive and motor control tasks.”

In brain, competing thoughts come in waves and rhythms

In brain, competing thoughts come in waves and rhythms.

Emerging evidence suggests that a group of neurons can represent each unique piece of information, but no one knows just what these ensembles look like, or how they form.

In a new study, researchers at MIT and Boston University gained insight into how neural ensembles form thoughts and support the flexibility to change one’s mind. Researchers identified groups of neurons that encode specific behavioral rules by oscillating in synchrony with each other. The results suggest that the nature of conscious thought may be rhythmic.

A better brain implant: Slim electrode cozies up to single neurons

A better brain implant: Slim electrode cozies up to single neurons.

The main problem that neurons have with electrodes is that they make terrible neighbors. In addition to being enormous compared to the neurons, they are stiff and tend to rub nearby cells the wrong way. The resident immune cells spot the foreigner and attack, inflaming the brain tissue and blocking communication between the electrode and the cells.