PANDAS, a fairly new disorder, has been gaining media attention because of the lack of research surrounding the factors and the unknown prevalence of the disorder itself. PANDAS, commonly known as Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections, is a disorder that stems from untreated strep and results in the debilitating onset of obsessive compulsive disorder like symptoms, tics, anxiety, and changes in motors skills (changes in handwriting, speech, balance); these symptoms can happen overnight and have alarmed doctors and loved ones alike. Interestingly, PANDAS is often associated with the DSM-IV category, “Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders” because of its OCD symptoms. Now, how does an untreated strep infection lead to these life-changing effects?
When strep goes untreated, it may trigger an immune response that results in inflammation on the brain—this inflammation is the direct cause of the onset symptoms. The symptoms will usually occur 4-6 months after the initial strep reaction. Streptococcal infections are often treated with antibiotics; however, the antibiotics may fail to eradicate the bacteria and build up will start to occur. The strep bacteria will partake in a process called molecular mimicry, in which the bacteria will place molecules familiar to the body (molecules found in tissue, on the heart, etc.) on its cell wall in order to remain undetected by the immune system. Once the immune system detects this foreign creation, antibodies will attack the mimicked molecules and the actual bacteria; this may be a cataract for the creation of antibodies that will start to target the brain, leading to the neuropsychiatric symptoms discussed above.
Other onset symptoms of PANDAS may include trouble sleeping, hyperactivity, inattention, separation anxiety (difficulty separating from parents), and mood changes. Children with PANDAS often experience the symptoms in episodes; there may be full remission of the OCD like symptoms during therapy and children often recall having good and bad days in regards to the symptoms. Treatment for this disorder typically involves antibiotics, as fighting the bacteria will alleviate the symptoms in due time. Immunoglobulin therapy has also been considered as a remedy for severely ill patients, as this plasma exchange is often used for immune disorders and may have side effects such as risk of infections, headaches, vomiting, and dizziness.
As more research is conducted on the subject, we can only hope that the prevalence will soon be known in order to familiarize the public and doctors with this ambitious disorder.
Writer: Gabriella Ademi
Editor: Audrey Kim
Sitting across from us in the comfort of her very practical, but nevertheless, cozy office space, Dr. Lucia Pastorino savors her chicken and rice. “Do you mind if I eat lunch? I haven’t eaten all day,” she asks as she gets out her lunch box. A prominent member of the Undergraduate Neuroscience Department, Dr. Pastorino keeps a tight schedule; nonetheless, she takes the time to share her inspiring story of exploration, discovery, and growth.
Dr. Pastorino was born in the beautiful city of Lecco, Italy, a small industrial town north of Milan. “It’s beautiful because it’s right at the lake and there are mountains,” she reminisces, “it was a city that taught me a lot; it’s a city of hard workers.” The industrial nature of the city produced a population that mostly consisted of business professionals and entrepreneurs; however, that was not her calling. “I really didn’t want to be in business. I wanted to be in the science field, so I chose [to pursue a] B.S./M.S. for my undergraduate studies.”
Dr. Pastorino’s undergraduate years were spent at the University of Milan studying Medicinal and Pharmaceutical Chemistry, which she loved because of its interdisciplinary applications to studies of medicine. “I wanted to see things from all different angles,” she explains, “with Medicinal Chemistry, you have chemistry, physiology, anatomy, biology, and biochemistry… you get to bring everything into the lab in one experience.” When she started her thesis, Dr. Pastorino was working in a Neuropharmacology lab that conducted studies on Alzheimer’s Disease, which then became the basis of her career as a researcher studying how modifications in the protein APP affect the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease. In 1996, she published her first paper with this lab, exploring the functions of beta-secretase at the genetic level. After graduation, she completed a fellowship in Geneva and eventually earned a Ph.D. in Neuropharmacology at her alma mater.
Dr. Pastorino first arrived in the United States on October 2nd, 1999 for her postdoctoral fellowship at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “I remember landing at JFK and thinking, ‘what a beautiful skyline,’” she recalls, “I couldn’t wait to get out of the airplane. I loved it.” She also recalls her living space, which was “altogether, as big as [her office].” In spite of her cramped apartment – which also came with mice and roaches – Dr. Pastorino claims that her three years at Mount Sinai were the best years of her life. What she loved most about New York was that “[she] was nobody, with the happiness to be nobody,” which gave her the freedom to be independent and pursue her own adventures. She proceeded to publish another paper in 2002 concerning the intracellular transportation of beta-secretase, which contributes to the accumulation of Amyloid-beta plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
At Mount Sinai, Dr. Pastorino met her future husband while taking English classes at a different institution. Shortly after they met, her then-boyfriend moved to Boston, and a year and a half later, she followed. In 2003, Dr. Pastorino worked as a researcher and instructor of Medicine at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Three years later, she became an instructor at the Harvard University Extension School. There, she pursued her passion for teaching. “I love it,” she tells us, “I love telling you what this is all about. I get too excited!” In 2013, Dr. Pastorino became a lecturer of Neuroscience at Boston University. When we asked what attracted her the most to the university, she responds, “BU [has] a very cooperative and diverse community of scientists that [really enriches my teaching experience]. I wouldn’t be able to do the same somewhere else.” The neuroscience department at BU, which is ranked number 41 globally by US News, has a special place in her heart. “You guys, your motivation, your interest, your excitement – you’re challenging sometimes,” she explains, “we always hope to challenge you in a good way, knowing we will be challenged back. This is what makes all of us better, it keeps us growing.” Dr. Pastorino’s goal as an educator is to make sure that her students don’t fear the subjects she teaches and to make her classes as enjoyable as she can. She credits her department for giving her the freedom and flexibility to achieve her goals, and applauds “[the department’s] ability to be appreciative of all [their] resources and to push [themselves] to do something new.”
Dr. Pastorino currently teaches four classes at Boston University: Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology (NE102), Biology of Neurodegenerative Diseases (NE525), Translational Research in Alzheimer’s Disease (NE535), and the Pre-lab portion of Organic Chemistry I with Integrated Science Experience Lab (ISE II). You can find out more about these classes on the BU course catalog.
Writer: Stephanie Gonzalez
Editors: Enzo Plaitano, Yasmine Sami, and Yoana Grigorova
We’ve all heard these stereotypes: firstborns are usually more conscientious, disciplined, and ambitious since their parents are stricter with them; middle children tend to be peacemakers, competitive but understanding; youngest children are generally more outgoing and free-spirited.
Although whether birth order significantly affects personality traits is not conclusive, research has shown that birth order plays a powerful role in job success. A number of studies have found that firstborns and only children are more likely to be in high-achieving professions such as law and medicine as well as leadership positions such as CEOs and U.S. presidents. Examples include Winston Churchill, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Clinton. On the other hand, laterborns are overrepresented among successful athletes in general. While their older siblings tend to do better academically, laterborns often choose to strive for difference and create their own niche.
Joseph Doyle, an MIT economist, studied how birth order impacts delinquency. The research focuses on boys because they have a much higher chance of getting in serious trouble as teenagers than girls do. The results indicate that the second-born children, compared to their older siblings, are 25 to 40 percent more likely to go to prison, get suspended in school, and enter the criminal justice system. So what sets second-born boys apart from their older brothers? Doyle suggests that parenting is an important factor. Parents tend to give more attention to their firstborns and divide their time and resources as more children come along. Another possible explanation is that firstborns and laterborns, despite sharing the same family and environment, have different role models early in life. Firstborns look up to adults, whereas laterborns look up to their older siblings, who are often two- or three-year-olds.
Birth order certainly shapes our lives in many ways and reveals unseen and interesting patterns. However, it is worth noting that birth order is not absolutely deterministic of who we are. For instance, many firstborns are good at sports, and many world political leaders are younger siblings.
Writer: Zijing Sang
Editor: Sophia Hon
When one thinks of parties, bars, or clubs, alcohol inevitably comes to mind. We drink before a party to help ourselves reduce anxiety and increase euphoria before dancing or mingling with other people. Because of these effects, alcohol has become the one of the most widely used recreational drugs in the world. So what exactly makes alcohol so appealing and why do we keep chasing after it despite knowing its negative effects in large doses?
With the first sip of the drink, we begin to see changes in two major neurotransmitters: GABA and glutamate. The increase in GABA keeps the brain calm while the glutamate keeps the brain active. The specific areas that are affected in the brain are the frontal lobe, which controls attention and planning, and the cerebellum, which controls movement. This is why after a few drinks, you may become uncoordinated and inhibited in your ability to think straight. After even more drinks, the levels of the neurotransmitters start to affect regions of the hippocampus, which can cause a loss of memory or black outs with increasing doses. After all the drinking has subsided, we leave our brain in a state to retune the neurotransmitter levels by itself, which could cause lasting damage if a heavy amount of alcohol was consumed. While an occasional drink has been shown to be healthy for the body, too much drinking leads to damage in the brain and a tendency towards alcoholism.
So how exactly do people become alcoholics? A study at Texas A&M has shown that alcohol seeking behavior may be a result of increasing connections between neurons in your brain. Through long-term potentiation, the pattern of activity described above is maintained. Wang et al. specifically tested this phenomenon by mimicking the effect of alcohol with optogenetics, which uses proteins sensitive to light to turn on and off certain regions in the brain. They used optogentics to recreate the memory and learning from alcohol, and both methods showed an increase in the strength of connections. With these findings, modulation of these regions in the brain may become an effective treatment for alcohol addictions. However, as exciting as these findings are, there is still a lot of research to be done before these methods can be used as treatments for addictions. In the meantime, drink cautiously and have fun!
Writer: Albert Wang
Editor: Sophia Hon
For a long time, science has believe that the brain is “hard-wired” like a computer, suggesting that neuronal connections in the brain are completely fixed. However, when fMRI techniques were developed, scientists were able to view brain activity and the truth became clear that the brain is not static, but plastic. No, that doesn’t mean that the brain is literally made of plastic. What it does mean, though, is that our brains are malleable and able to change. The term “neuroplasticity” refers to the ability of the brain to reorganize its neuronal connections based on both external and internal stimuli, altering how we think and behave.
One way in which neuroplasticity affects our lives is by compensating for brain damage. If a brain region associated with a particular function is impaired, another brain region may take over that function. Strokes, injuries, birth abnormalities, PTSD, depression, and learning disabilities can be ameliorated thanks to the ability of the brain to reorganize itself. In addition to brain injury, neuroplasticity also plays a role in learning. If one becomes an expert in a specific skill, the corresponding brain regions associated with this skill may grow. One of the most common examples of this phenomenon occurs in the case of London taxi drivers. The hippocampus, partially involved in the formation of spatial representations of the environment, has been found to be larger among London taxi drivers samples. This is likely because their job requires them to navigate complex London streets. This kind of growth can be compared against the brains of London bus drivers, those who typically only need to follow a limited set of routes. Neuroplasticity can also play a role in other skills. The left parietal cortex, an area of the brain associated with language, is typically larger in those who are bilingual than in those who are monolingual. Another example of this would include musicians, whose motor regions, the anterior superior parietal areas and inferior temporal areas, have been observed to be larger than those of non-musicians.
Practicing mindfulness, meditation, doing aerobic exercise, learning a new instrument or language, and getting plenty of sleep are a few ways to increase your neuroplasticity. While it is true that your brain is much more plastic during your childhood and that plasticity declines with age, it is important to realize that even as you grow old, your brain always has the potential to change.
Writer: Nathaniel Meshberg
Editor: James Kunstle
Cramming. For one reason or another, be it poor time management or laziness, we’ve all pretty much done it at some point in our lives. Yes, it’s wrong and doesn’t really help to prepare well for tests, but have you ever considered why that is the case? What exactly is it about cramming that doesn’t quite agree with the brain and just ends up hurting test performance?
Cramming involves trying to memorize as much information as possible while only actually being able to encode some of the information as short-term memory. Whatever important material you’ve tried to memorize you will likely only be able to recognize and not recall because the information being encoded only includes surface level features. An example of this phenomenon would be rereading your notes: sensory areas of the brain such as the visual cortex will process the information and help you recognize what your notes look like, but other brain areas such as the frontal cortex and temporal lobe responsible for reconstructing a memory of the actual material which can then be recalled will not be active. On the other hand, long term memory encoding requires meaningful analysis of information as well as enough time to study to adequately process all the information you wish to store. Rewriting notes to make sense of them and constructing diagrams or pictures to relate different concepts are useful methods for creating a longer-lasting memory in your head – provided you do so well in advance, of course.
Another important problem to note about cramming is that it can interfere with the amount of sleep you get. Why is it important to be well-rested before an exam? Sleep, as it turns out, is vital for memory consolidation, a process where a short-term memory is stabilized into a long-term one as features of that memory become more connected. The hippocampus has been associated with memory consolidation: studies involving mice learning how to navigate mazes show that mice hippocampal neurons are active as they learn the maze and are actually reactivated during sleep, and this reactivation has been associated with strengthening of the new connections. What does all this mean? In the case where you have to choose between staying up all night to memorize as much information as you can and getting a good night’s sleep, choose getting a good night’s sleep. You won’t regret it.
Writer: Nathaniel Meshberg
Editor: Sophia Hon
Do you know how to play an instrument, such as a guitar, violin, or piano? Have you ever learned to recognize different notes or melodies in music? If so, you may have better speech perception than those who haven’t. A recent article published by Du et al. shows that musicians have an advantage in noise perception both on a behavioral level and on a neural level. In their behavioral study, they compared both musicians’ and non-musicians’ abilities to identify certain English phonemes alone or when combined with noise. Simultaneously, they used an fMRI to test their BOLD (blood oxygenation level-dependent) activity and ran a comparison between the two groups. Additionally, they looked at certain regions of interests (ROIs) from the fMRI and compared them using a multivoxel pattern analysis to see a difference in activation between regions. They found that long-term musical training helps with speech perception in noisy environments. This performance was correlated to an increase in activity in Broca’s area (a region in the frontal lobe linked to language processing and speech production), higher representations in auditory and motor regions, as well as stronger inter- and intra-hemispherical connectivity between auditory and motor regions. They ultimately found that musical training could lead to better auditory encoding, speech motor prediction, and auditory-motor integration that lead to better speech perception.
This study has quite a number of implications. With increased speech perception, you would be able to understand what someone is saying more quickly. This may benefit students in terms of taking down notes in lectures and comprehending lecture material. Better speech perception also has some clinical implications. Research by Kathleen et al. has shown that aging is related to a decrease in auditory processing. If musical training can increase speech perception, it may also have effects on auditory processing and thus decrease some of the negative symptoms associated with aging. These are all additional factors that need to be further studied, but the implications are very intriguing. Learning music is not only a good skill, but it may also have many beneficial effects. So in your spare time, learn how to play an instrument and differentiate between the sounds – you may be able to gain an upper hand in speech perception.
Writer: Albert Wang
Editor: Sophia Hon
Glossophobia is the medical term for the strong fear of public speaking. It is one of the most common phobias: about 75% of the world’s population struggle with this social phobia, or social anxiety disorder, to some extent. According to several surveys, the fear of public speaking is even greater than the fear of death.
Those who suffer from glossophobia tend to experience the classic fight or flight response when speaking in front of a group, even if the group only consists of a few people. They may tremble, sweat, freeze, and so on. As their brains release adrenaline and steroids, their blood sugar levels and heart rates increase. The symptoms are not necessarily limited to during a public speaking event; they can also happen prior to the event, that is, when it is anticipated. While glossophobic people may know that this fear is irrational, they have the least amount of power in controlling their feelings.
The exact cause of glossophobia is still unclear. However, genetic factors often play a huge role. Like many other phobias, glossophobia is more common in people who carry the corresponding characteristic from their families. Individuals with a family history of glossophobia or any similar fear may exhibit the symptoms when the fearful gene is activated. Certain traumatic events can also lead to glossophobia. You probably suffer from glossophobia and have a strong fear of being judged, embarrassed, or rejected because at some point in your life, you’ve experienced distressful situations, such as an unpleasant presentation you’ve given. Such events might not appear intense when they occur, but they can have a long-lasting impact. Another possible factor is education. Less educated people in general are more likely to feel uncomfortable with taking the stage. In one poll, 52% of respondents with a high school diploma or less expressed a fear of public speaking, compared to only 24% of college graduates. The consequence is that a glossophobic person is likely to deliberately avoid any public speaking scenarios.
Writer: Zijing Sang
Editor: Sophia Hon
According to the NIH, 90 people in the U.S. die from overdosing on opioids every day. This rise in opioid usage began when a number of different opiate brands, such as Vicodin and Xanax, started being prescribed to more patients of different, usually younger, ages. In 2000, the average age of drug-related deaths was 40; now we are seeing more people in their 20s and 30s die from drug overdoses. The opioid crisis began with prescription opiates but has now culminated in the abuse of prescription drugs and recreational narcotics like heroin. But how has this epidemic taken so many lives? Well, the answer lies in how the brain develops tolerance and addiction to drugs such as opiates.
What happens to your nerves when you take an opiate? Most chemical signals land on receptors in the axon terminal of your nerve cells, which normally work by attaching to chemical signals that excite electrical impulses through your nerves. By taking opiates, those opiate chemical signals land on opioid receptors and inhibit the electrical impulses from ever traveling through the nerve cell.
There are 3 different kinds of opioid receptors – Mu, Kappa, and Delta. The Mu-opiate receptor is the most important in that it is responsible for activating all the symptoms and effects of taking opiates, such as constipation, pain numbing, euphoria, and depression. These opiate receptors are all-encompassing because they affect not only pain pathways but other parts of the brain such as the locus ceruleus, among other regions.
GABAergic receptors are the start of addiction and are located in the midbrain. GABAergic receptors are in charge of switching on or off the pleasure and pain networks of the brain, and opiates shut off these receptors to induce dopamine (the chemical that relieves anxiety and stress) to fill up the receptors. The secretion of dopamine conditions the brain to think that opiates are good for you and creates a tolerance. These GABAergic receptors adapt to the opiates within your body by producing more cyclic AMP to adjust for the inhibition of the electrical impulses in the nerve cells. Following the increase in cyclic AMP, nerve cells fire more electrical impulses, which cause the symptoms associated with withdrawal, such as diarrhea, dysphoria, and anxiety.
With the knowledge of what causes addiction, new research have arisen from this opioid epidemic. The Scripps Research Institute in Florida has developed a new form of opiate that decreases the risk of overdose while still substantially decreasing pain. This new drug decreases the respiratory suppression normally found in analgesia, which is the number one cause of death from overdosing. Another study from the University of Utah found that a compound from marine snails actually blocks pain pathway signals, which could become an alternative in the near future instead of prescription opiates. Another more popular alternative to pain management as well as withdrawal management is the use of medical marijuana. In a pilot study published in Trends in Neurosciences, cannabinoids are seen to decrease withdrawal symptoms by reducing drug cravings and even restored some neurological damage from prolonged drug abuse.
While this epidemic has taken hold of a larger portion of the U.S. than expected, it is only with the help of the researchers, scientists, and doctors that any damage from this opioid epidemic can be repaired.
Writer: Cindy Wu
Look at me while you’re talking!
If you’re anything like me, you probably have a hard time managing your eyes during conversations. Although eye contact is encouraged to maintain engagement with the other person, awkwardness could lead some to avert their gaze.
Turns out, according to Kajimura and Nomura (2016), our attempts to maintain eye contact and to rummage for the proper words are in competition for a domain general cognitive resource. To be more specific, when one tries to maintain eye contact, the default mode network is activated, which allows for self-consciousness and perception of others’ mindsets. On the other hand, verbal processing deactivates the default mode network and activates language networks. As a result, this competition between the two processes to either activate or deactivate the default mode network explains why eye contact hinders conversation. This ultimately generates an urge to break eye contact in order to facilitate verbal processing. Kajimura and Nomura’s conclusions came about from a word association game. When given a noun, the participants were asked to immediately respond with a verb that relates to the noun mentioned. For example, if the word “pie” was given, the participants would then respond with verbs such as, “eat”, “bake”, and so on. Moreover, this game was done while the participants stared at a face on a computer screen that would maintain eye contact and sometimes look away. The results showed that when faced with a challenging word, participants took longer to respond with a verb, but the response time was shorter if the participants broke eye contact.
Likewise, according to Glenberg et al. (1998), people might also avert their gaze if a question or topic being discussed has a high level of complexity or difficulty, and by averting their gaze, responses became more accurate. This study was done through a series of experiments. One of the experiments observed participants’ eye movements while they answered questions with varying levels of difficulty. In another experiment, participants were asked to answer general knowledge and mathematical questions while either closing their eyes or looking at the experimenter. The first experiment showed that participants showed a tendency to avert their gaze more as the difficulty of the questions increased. In the latter experiment, the participants scored more accurately when they had their eyes closed.
So if you ever notice someone breaking eye contact frequently, don’t take it too personally; they’re probably just trying to think. After all, what really matters in a conversation are the words being spoken and the thoughts behind them.
Author: Audrey Kim
Editor: Albert Wang