By Wafaa Abbasi

The Limits of Neuroscience

April 19th, 2011 in Pop Culture 0 comments

Time and time aLimitless The Moviegain college students are up all night writing a paper they should have started a week ago or cramming for an exam they are going to take the next day. How many times have you compromised your sleep to get things done? How many times have you found that you couldn’t concentrate on what you were doing, making the whole process longer? What if I were to offer you a pill that would let you use your brain at its full capacity?

In Limitless, the protagonist, Eddie Morra, finds this pill and it changes his life. He goes from being a recently-dumped, struggling writer into being a superhuman that no longer needs to sleep. Not only does he finish his novel in the matter of four days, he also manages to win a ridiculous amount of money from the stock market and to get back with his ex-girlfriend, Lindy. By the end of the movie, he is running for United States Senate, being considered for presidency, and has become superhuman due to the change in his brain chemistry after his use of the drug.

Unfortunately, I must inform you that this movie is far from being based on a true story. Not only is the fact that we only use twenty percent of our brains a myth, but neuroscience, as a field, is not developed enough to be able to use what we know about the brain in order to make a pill that allows us to do even half of what Eddie Morra did in the movie.

James Kakalios, a physics professor from the University of Minnesota comments on the movie, saying that even though there are chemicals available known to improve brain functioning and that medical science may soon develop drugs that make us smarter, “Taking a pill and becoming a supergenius? Mmmm, that’s kinda crazy. That understanding of neurochemistry far eludes us at this stage.” He goes on further to support that the claim that we only use twenty percent of our brain is a myth. He says, “We use all of our brains. We don’t understand a lot about how the brain works, but evolutionarily, everything in the three-pound hunk of meat on the top of your head is there for a reason.”
Brain Scan

It is suggested that the way that the media depicts neuroscience is problematic because it uses distorted data in order to back up false claims. A study by Diane Beck, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois suggests that this is because neuroscience studies explain human behavior in a seemingly simple way by citing biological data, which is considered more reliable than other types of data concerning human behavior. This study is further supported by another study done by researchers at Colorado State and UCLA that asked a group of undergraduate students to assess the validity of an argument based on data given to them. The argument was that, because both watching television and doing math problems activate the temporal lobe, watching television improves our mathematical ability. Participants of the experiment who were shown bar graphs “supporting” the data were less likely to find the claim convincing than were participants who were shown a brain scan, even though both pieces of data were cryptic. The assumption that what we know about the brain is directly related to what we know about the mind and human behavior suggests that the field of neuroscience is far more developed than it actually is. Although we have made great strides in the field of neuroscience and the field is rapidly developing, movies like Limitless imply that there is no gap between the science of the mind and the science of the brain.

“Limitless Brain Power Plot isn’t All That Crazy” MSNBC

“Neuroscience: Is it All In Your Mind?” Miller McCune

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Our Attraction to the End

February 22nd, 2011 in Article 2 comments

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Since the beginning of time, there have been theories on how the world will end. One fairly recent theory is that the end of the world will occur on December 21, 2012 when the Mayan Long Count calendar ends. Although scholars reject the theory that any catastrophic event is scheduled for this date, arguing that the significance of the date has been misinterpreted, many people still believe it’s coming. Movies, countless online forums and a good number of books talk about the apocalypse that is supposed to be arriving.

It makes you wonder what makes people obsess over these end-of-the-world scenarios after they’re given facts proving that it won’t happen. In an article published in Scientific American, Michael Moyer suggests that we are constantly trying to predict our demise because we have a need to explain things that are not in our control. Our brains are always searching for patterns in order to interpret the significance of events that occur in the natural world. Sociologist, John Hall, explains in his book, Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity, that, “After events like 9/11 and the Great Recession, as well as technological disasters like the BP oil spill, people begin to wonder—not just people who are fringe zealots or crazies—whether modern society is any longer capable of solving its problems.” Therefore, Moyer suggests, people are more willing to believe that the end of the world is coming because of a psychological need to explain why these events are happening.
A book on how to survive the doomsday in 2012
Michael Shermer, editor in chief of Skeptic Magazine, agrees with Moyer, saying that the mind is always creating patterns based on events, meaningful or not. This explains why some people are so willing to believe doomsday scenarios when they hear them. He adds that people will opt to believe that a proposed danger is real when it actually isn’t because it is the safer course. He gives the example of Lucy the hominid who hears a noise while walking on the plains of Africa. She has two choices; she could assume that it was just grass rustling because of the wind or that is was a predator. The safer choice would be to assume that she was in danger, even if she wasn’t, in order to save her life. He suggests that this habit of assuming the worst to stay out of danger evolved into our pattern-seeking habits, causing us to predict catastrophic events based on potentially meaningless events. Research done by Jennifer Whitson, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, supports this claim, suggesting that a decreased sense of control causes people to look for patterns in order to regain order and control as well as to find solutions to the problem.

Eternal Fascinations with the End: Why We’re Suckers for Stories of Our Own Demise – Scientific American
A video and transcript of Michael Shermer’s talk
Feeling Powerless? Do I have a Conspiracy Theory For You – Newsweek

The Dangers of Thinking on Auto-Pilot

December 27th, 2010 in Uncategorized 1 comment

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Dependence on GPS causes you to ignore landmarks needed to build cognitive maps

Dependence on a GPS causes you to ignore external stimuli needed to build cognitive maps

The Global Positioning System (GPS) has revolutionized the way we travel. We are able to “find ourselves” when we get lost and also get directions to anywhere we want to go. However, a recent study suggests that depending too heavily on a GPS can have a negative effect on your brain.

Researchers at McGill University conducted three studies that confirm that there is a link between being an avid GPS user and having difficulty in memory-related tasks. Instead of using spatial-navigation strategies consisting of building cognitive maps to know where you’re going, GPS users may depend on a stimulus-response strategy which determines where to turn based on repetition instead of any external stimulus.

The fMRI images of younger subjects who used the spatial-navigation strategy when compared to older subjects who preferred the stimulus-response strategy when navigating through a virtual maze showed to have increased activity in the hippocampus, the structure in the brain responsible for memory and spatial navigation. Moreover, older adults that preferred spatial-navigation strategies had more gray matter in their hippocampal region than those who preferred the stimulus-response strategy. They also scored higher on standardized cognition tests.

The hippocampus is responsible for memory and navigation

The Hippocampus is the region in the brain responsible for memory and navigation

Although these tests do not confirm causality, it is very possible that the lack of hippocampal activity in the brains of GPS users may lead to atrophy of the hippocampus as they age, which puts them at greater risk for diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The researchers do not suggest getting rid of the GPS all together. However, they recommend that although it might be necessary when going to a new place, it wouldn’t hurt to turn your GPS off in a familiar neighborhood. Although building a cognitive map may take some time, it is well worth it.

GPS addict? It may be eroding your brain – Mental Health on MSNBC
Study: GPS Units Cause Memory and Spatial Problems – Daily Tech

Three Bald Mice: The Link Between Behavioral Disorders and the Immune System

November 9th, 2010 in Uncategorized 2 comments

                  A recent study confirms the cause-effect relationship between problems in the immune system and the development of mental illness. Nobel Prize winning geneticist, Mario Cappecchi, and his team, linked a deficiency of microglial cells with Trichotillomania, an impulse control disorder that causes people to pull out their hair. In his experiment, Cappecchi performed bone marrow transplants on “hair pulling” mice. It was reported that within four months of the transplants, the mice no longer had the disorder. Consequently, healthy mice given bone marrow from affected mice developed the behavioral disorder.

                  The hair pulling in the mice was discovered to be caused by a deficiency of microglia in the brain. Microglia are located throughout the brain and spinal cord and play a major role in the immune defense of the central nervous system. They are responsible for locating damaged neurons as well as fighting off infections that go past the blood-brain barrier. The deficiency of microglia is said to be caused by a mutant Hox8 gene. The Hox8 gene is responsible for some of the development of the body and the organs. Since the microglial cells originate from the bone marrow and migrate towards the brain later on, it is the only group of cells in the brain that have this gene, and is suggested to be very important for the development of the brain.
                  Scientists were aware of the link between the immune system and mental illness for a while now. People diagnosed with psychiactric disorders such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression often had problems with their immune system. This discovery, however, suggests a cause-effect relationship with problems in the immune system and psychiactric disorders. As Ghosh says, “Apart from the fact that this is the world’s first reported behavior transplant, this finding is an important landmark in our understanding of the genetic basis of behavior.” This opens a whole range of possibilities as scientists are able to apply the knowledge they know about the immune system discover causes for psychiatric disorders and also find ways to treat these illnesses with immuno-based therapy.

Bone-Marrow Transplants Cure Mice Of Hair-Pulling Compulsion In Link Between Mental Illness And Immune Defect Discovered By Nobel Winner
– Medical News Today
Mind Your Immune System -Brain Blogger