The Myths Behind Migraines

October 19th, 2015 in Uncategorized 4 comments

A migraine headache is a severe unilateral and pulsating discomfort that is associated with extreme sensitivity to light, sound, smell, taste, and touch that generally lasts between 4 and 72 hours.  According to Daniela Pietrobon and Jord Striessnig in “Neurobiology of Migraine,” migraines affect 6-8% of men and 15-25% of women in western countries.  At least 1% of the population has a minimum of one day of migraine per week – which means around 2.5 million people in North America are sufferers.  In fact, migraines are currently ranked as one of the most disabling chronic disorders.  With such a high prevalence, it may seem peculiar how little is known about this condition.  However, with the help of recent experimental studies, we are beginning to advance our understanding of the physiological and biological factors that contribute to triggering a migraine. Unfortunately, due to the lack of knowledge about this disease, there are many myths associated with it. I shall address some of these myths in the hope of broadening the general understanding of both the disease and its sufferers.

Myth 1: Migraines are simply bad headaches exaggerated by the sufferer.

Truth: Unfortunately, this is a common creed adopted by a vast majority of both the general public and many physicians. For the past century, there has been negative stigma placed on migraine sufferers.  Society has long placed the blame of migraines on migraineurs, believing that their migraines are nothing more than headaches that are exaggerated by their sufferers and caused by stress.  This is false.  According to M.A.G.N.U.M., the National Migraine Association, “migraine is a disease, a headache is only a symptom.”  A migraine sufferer can experience “nausea, vomiting, auras (light spots), sensitivity to light[, scent,] and sound, numbness, difficulty in speech, and severe semihemispherical head pain.”  In addition, it is important to note that the cause of migraine pain has been found to be the opposite of the cause of most non-migranous headaches.  Migraine pain is generally caused by the dilation of blood vessels in the brain, while other typical headaches appear to result from vasoconstriction.  Further, migraines have been found to be genetically linked, where an individual has a 50% chance of suffering from migraines if one of his or her parents is a migraineur.

Myth 2: Migraines are caused solely by psychological factors.

Truth: While stress, depression, and anxiety can all worsen the symptoms of a migraine, they are rarely the sole cause.  According to M.A.G.N.U.M., “migraine is a neurological disease, not a psychological disorder.”  A migraine is a result of vasodilation in the cranial blood vessels, resulting in an overstimulation of the nerve synapses. Furthermore, migraines can be triggered by both controllable and uncontrollable factors.  Controllable stimulants can include bright lights, loud noises, strong scents, and various foods (notably those that are aged or nitrate-latent).  Uncontrollable triggers can include hormone changes and weather variations, including fluctuations in barometric pressure, temperature, and humidity.  One can often lessen the risk of incidence of a migraine attack by reducing the controllable triggers. However, this is not always enough to fully prevent a migraine spell.

Myth 3: Any doctor should be able to effectively recognize and properly treat migraines.

Truth: Although members of the medical community are generally highly knowledgeable in their fields, migraines still remain one of the most misdiagnosed and mistreated diseases today. This is primarily due to the inherent lack of knowledge about and overall awareness of migraines and their symptoms.  M.A.G.N.U.M. goes on to say that, “In fact, 60% of women and 70% of men with migraines have never been diagnosed with this disease.”  These migraine sufferers are often misdiagnosed with clinical depression and/or other psychological disorders, leading doctors to mistreat them with various prescription drugs.  Hopefully, as our understanding of this disease grows, we can educate both the medical community and the general public about migraines, in an attempt to vastly increase correct diagnoses and treatments.

According to Dr. Silberstein, M.D., F.A.C.P., Co-Director, The Comprehensive Headache Center at Germantown Hospital and Medical Center, in a letter to M.A.G.N.U.M., “Migraine sufferers must not only cope with their pain, but also with society’s misunderstanding of the disorder.”  Therefore, both knowledge and education are paramount in the fight of ridding the stigmas surrounding this disease.

– Alexa Aaronson


Migraines: Myth Vs. Reality


Migraines and Headaches: Overview & Facts


Neurobiology of Migraine


Pay attention, Millennials!

October 16th, 2015 in Article, Opinion, Pop Culture 0 comments


It seems like today, there isn’t a single person without some type of smart phone. We look around, or more commonly, we look down at our screens, and everyone is either texting, tweeting, instagramming, or snap chatting. A short time ago, we had to actually have human interaction to give someone a message or to even just say hi. Now, we can Skype or Facetime and communicate with an LCD screen. That’s not even the worst part. Recent studies have shown that our attention span has been rapidly decreasing because of this. On average, humans have the attention span of 8 seconds. Let me just repeat that really quick, 8 SECONDS. That is a shorter attention span than a goldfish. We cannot pay attention longer than a goldfish…
This short attention span is a huge problem in society. Children are failing to read books properly because they cannot hold their attention long enough to stay on the page. Adults cannot finish one project at a time because they get bored of it and want to move onto something else. The list goes on. So what are we going to do to stop this? We can’t get rid of smart phones, which is the major cause of this loss of attention. We can’t give every person Aderall, a medication used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, to keep them focused, as that would be inefficient and a waste of money. However, there is one thing that people can do for themselves to help increase their attention span: meditate.
When people hear the word mediation, they usually picture a person sitting on the floor with their eyes closed, their thumb and middle fingers touching, making the ‘om’ sound. Yes, this is one way to meditate, but what many people don’t know is that there is a variety of other ways to meditate and be mindful. All you have to do is focus; pay attention to your thoughts and feelings in the current moment. I know that in today’s society, asking someone to focus and pay attention is a very big request, but everyone is capabile of this, even if it’s only for 8 seconds. The key to this is to do it a few times a day and increase your time spent meditating as each day passes. There have been countless studies done on mediation and attention. It has been proven that meditating at least once a day increases your attention span and improves many other things. How does meditation do this? Meditating every day increases cortical thickness in the brain. This has been proven through brain imaging before and after subjects went through different meditation programs. This increase in cortex leads to an increase in attention, which ultimately leads to better memory. When we are able to hold our attention longer, we retain more information so, simply put, we are able to remember more stuff.
There are so many positive effects of meditation. Not only does it lead to an increase in attention and memory, but it also reduces stress levels, increases relaxation levels, increases energy levels, decreases respiratory rate, increases blood flow, and so much more. Meditation definitely has the possibility of solving society’s attention problem and so many more problems, but only if people take the short amount of time out of their day to do it.




Fear Conditioning and PTSD

October 14th, 2015 in Article, PTSD 0 comments


Ivan Pavlov is a name familiar to most, whether scientific expert or budding psychology student. Pavlov founded the basis of classical, or Pavlovian, conditioning, in which an animal or person learns to associate an initially meaningless stimulus in their environment with a stimulus that produces an automatic response, therefore eliciting the response when the newly meaningful stimulus is presented. Most famously, you might recognize Pavlov’s experiment where he conditioned dogs to associate sounds with the arrival of food, eventually producing a salivary response from the dogs with just the sound alone.

Following Pavlov, in 1919 a scientist named John B Watson became one of the first people to demonstrate fear conditioning: using Pavlovian conditioning to induce a fear response or a phobia. You may have heard of his notorious and ethically questionable “Little Albert” experiment, in which he induced phobias of rabbits and other normally pleasing objects in an infant through an association with loud, unpleasant noises.

Fear conditioning can be used for more than just questionable experiments on infants, though.  In recent years, scientists have been using what we know about fear conditioning to study disorders like PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), in hopes of finding new treatments.

PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder, is a disorder where fear learned in a traumatic situation is triggered by seemingly neutral stimuli in ordinary, safe situations, producing detrimental physiological and behavioral responses. Studies have shown that the brain areas affected in PTSD – mainly the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex – are similar to the brain areas affected in rodents who have been fear conditioned. Evidence suggests that flawed synaptic plasticity, the ability for the brain to rewire itself, could be part of the cause of PTSD.

During fear conditioning, rodent’s brains rewire themselves to make a connection between a certain stimulus and a fear response. During extinction, the process in which a conditioned response to a stimulus goes away, the synaptic connections rewire themselves, no longer associating the certain stimulus to a fear response. In patients with PTSD, it is possible that the flawed synaptic ability hinders the fear response from being overwritten effectively. This results in the production of an otherwise unwarranted fear response in patients, when exposed to neutral stimuli.

By attempting to understand the synaptic basis for PTSD using animal models of fear conditioning, scientists can work toward developing new medications that effect chemical action at the synapses. Hopefully, these medications will be able to lessen the symptoms of PTSD in patients and eventually work toward more accessible treatment for flawed synaptic plasticity, and fear and anxiety disorders in general.


-Kristen Burke


Heatherton, Todd, and Diane Halpern. “Chapter 6, Learning.” Psychological Science. By Michael Gazzaniga. 5th ed. New York: W W Norton, 2013. 222-37. Print.

Mahan, Amy L., and Kerry J. Ressler. “Fear Conditioning, Synaptic Plasticity and the Amygdala: Implications for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Cell Press 35 (2012): 24-35. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

The Effect of State and Trait Anxiety on Attention

October 12th, 2015 in Article 1 comment

A topic that has become more and more prevalent over the last few years is the effect of anxiety on attentiveness. How anxiety affects attention depends on the type of anxiety that is experienced. Most people experience state anxiety, in other words, a higher threat value is placed on a particular situation or stimulus. Feeling anxious during a very important midterm is an example of state anxiety. Another type of anxiety is trait anxiety, which is the tendency to focus one’s attention towards the stimulus causing the anxiety. In other words, to think only about the exam, instead of non-anxiety inducing stimuli.

Attention itself is composed of three independent networks: the alerting network, the orienting network, and the executive network. The alerting network is responsible for maintaining an appropriate level of sensitivity to the stimulus through activation of the right frontal and parietal areas of the brain. The orienting network attends to information coming from a specific stimulus among numerous sensory stimuli. This network is associated with activation in the superior parietal lobe, frontal eye fields, and temporoparietal junction. The executive network is responsible for conflict resolution and voluntary action control of the stimulus, and is related to the medial frontal areas of the brain, as well as the cingulate gyrus and lateral prefrontal cortex.

Two experiments were performed by the Department of Psychology and Physiology at the University of Granada and the Department of Neurology at Washington University School of Medicine to learn more about the relationship between these two different types of anxiety and attention. The first focused on trait anxiety, while the second focused on state anxiety.

The first experiment featured a group of individuals with either high or low trait anxiety, and another group of individuals with average trait anxiety. The two groups were made to perform various computer tasks that played to each specific network of attention. What the researchers found was that individuals with high-trait-anxiety had a more difficult time controlling interference in the computer tasks than those with low-trait-anxiety. However, the results of the alerting and orienting tasks were very similar for both groups. Those with high-trait anxiety had a difficult time responding to the task’s demands.

The second experiment also separated participants into two groups for anxious mood induction and non-anxious mood induction. One group was shown pleasant pictures and the other was shown unpleasant pictures, both groups were tasked with becoming emotionally involved in what they were seeing. In the group shown the negative stimuli (the unpleasant pictures), more emphasis was put on the lack of control over the negative circumstances represented in the image. The positive stimuli (the pleasant pictures) in the other group focused more on goal achievement. The individuals shown the negative stimuli revealed higher levels of anxiety than those shown the positive stimuli.

The results of the experiments revealed that both state and trait anxiety have a significant impact on attentional networks. State anxiety was found to have a greater impact on the alerting and orienting networks of attention, because they are more closely related to contextual sensitivity and vigilance processes. High state anxiety was found to be the result of a heightened response in the amygdala and superior temporal sulcus (regions activated during the assessment of valence facial expressions). It was also found that the executive network was less efficient in those with high-trait-anxiety than those with low-trait-anxiety because the executive network determines control, which is what those with high-trait-anxiety were lacking. High trait anxiety was related to a reduced prefrontal response (the region related to controlling complex processes). It was concluded that trait anxiety was responsible for a “reduced-general cognitive control capacity”.

-Allyson Pulsoni


1. Attention and Anxiety: Different Attentional Functioning Under State and Trait Anxiety
Image by Evan89, via Wikimedia Commons

Gene Regulation and The Hippocampus

October 9th, 2015 in Article 0 comments

child Head

Memory has always been and still is a subject of interest for many neuroscientists. Whether it pertains to increasing memory or finding cures to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, memory is always a topic of interest for neuroscientists. Recently, there have been studies conducted by both the Institute of Basic Science and Advancing Science, Serving Society (AAAS) that have found genes that are suppressed or inhibited that prevent the formation of these long term memories. Increased hippocampal activity also is shown to have treatments toward age related memory loss, which could relate to the genes found by the AAAS and the IBS.

The IBS Center, using a technique called Ribosome profiling, was able to analyze the hippocampus of a mouse model and showed that gene regulation actually suppressed the formation of memory. According to the article “When an animal experiences no stimulus in an environment the hippocampus undergoes gene repression which prevents the formation of new memories”, showing activity of the neurons help prevent this gene regulation which allows the formation of memory. Natasha Pinol from the AAAS also found a similar action in his studies however showed that one estrogen receptor actually helped regulate the memories after learning instead of inhibiting it, as Jun Cho for IBS has found.

Although these particular genes themselves might still have their purposes unknown to the world, these findings can definitely be used to help with age related memory loss such as Alzheimer’s disease. Through a study done at Northwestern University by Marla Paul, it is shown that decreasing certain activity and increasing other activity could lead to an increase in memory formation. Although they did not target the same genes that Cho and Pinol targeted, this really shows how much more we are learning about the hippocampus, as memory is formed through a moderation of genes.


– Albert Wang

Is Music Affecting Our Memory?

March 25th, 2015 in Article, News 5 comments

cf7eb5b4_Listen-to-musicMusic has been scientifically proven as beneficial, having effects such as reducing stress, enhancing blood vessel function, improving sleep quality, and improving cognitive performance. However, one thing that music does not improve is one’s ability to focus. In a recent study conducted at Georgia Institute of Technology, researchers found that listening to music decreased the efficiency of remembering names.

Participants in this study were asked to match faces to names, a task that involves associative memory. In associative memory, a memory of an event or place is triggered by the recollection of something associated with it. Music is heavily involved in associative memory, which is why it can be upsetting to listen to certain songs if you have associated them with an ex-significant other. Much like other types of memory, associative memories are processed in the hippocampus of the brain.

Some participants completed this name-face test in silence, while others had non-lyrical music playing in the background. All age groups of participants agreed that the music was distracting from the test, but only the scores of the older adults were affected by it.


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Nanotechnology: Creating the perfect human?

March 23rd, 2015 in Article, News, Opinion 1 comment

How would you feel if you had the choice of having billions of tiny robots injected into your body? A pretty unpleasant thought, am I right? What if I told you that these tiny robots could repair any mutation you may have in your DNA? Sound far-fetched? Well, scientists have been making huge breakthroughs in this! It’s called nanotechnology. These small robots are like tiny computers that are coded to attach to specific cells in your body and carry them from point A to point B. These tiny robots, 1-100nm in size (or 1 and 100 billionth of a meter!),  are like transporters; they pick up the target cell at point A and move it to point B. Point B can be anything from the trash, (cell death) if the cell is not needed anymore, to another part of the body where the cell is needed. They also have the ability to reprogram a cell’s biology. If more of one cell is needed in a particular area it can bring that cell to the specified area and “tell” it to replicate. Basically, nanotechnology will eventually perfect every single cell in your body.


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Read You Like a Book

March 18th, 2015 in Uncategorized 0 comments

When I read a book, I get so immersed in the lives of the characters, I find myself anxious and on edge even though I know Katniss’ and Peeta’s tragic romantic life have no bearing on my reality.  The fact that characters fabricated from mere words can have this effect on us is pretty incredible. Roel Willems and Annabel Nijhof thought so too apparently, as they recently published a study revealing the neurological effects of listening to audiobooks.

In the experiment, researchers had the subjects listen to chapters of several different audiobooks and recorded their neurological responses using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).  By analyzing the results, Willems and Nijhof determined that the subjects focused most on either the actions of characters or the feelings and intentions of characters. In the subjects that reported to prefer empathizing with the characters more, the fMRIs showed heightened activity in the anterior medial prefrontal cortex, whereas those that reported enjoying the action aspect of the story more had elevated activity in the motor cortex. More

Nice to…smell you?

March 17th, 2015 in Uncategorized 3 comments


Shaking hands dates back centuries, with many cultural explanations to back up the ancient customs. One study suggests that the true reason we shake hands is to find out what this new friend smells like. Why? Smell is a “socially significant chemical signal,” used by many other species in social interactions. The researchers conducting this Weizmann Institute study hypothesize that shaking hands is a subliminal way for us to register the smell of others, a primal social custom that survived evolution.

To begin the experiment, the researchers needed to determine if a handshake was enough to transfer detectable body odor. One subject wore a glove on their right hand and the other did not. When the glove was tested after the two subjects shook hands, odor residues containing “meaningful chemical signals” were found on the glove. The next step was to determine the amount of time (if any) spent sniffing the right hand after shaking hands. Around three hundred volunteers, unaware of the purpose of the experiment, were greeted by researchers via a handshake. Surveillance cameras in the room recorded the scene and showed how much time subjects spend sniffing their hands after the encounter. To ensure the subjects were actually subconsciously smelling their hands, nasal air flow was also recorded.


The Mystery of the Human Connectome

March 9th, 2015 in Article, News 0 comments

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Section of brain volume.

Did anyone read that article in BU today last week called “Untangling the Connectome?” In case you didn’t, here’s a brief synopsis. Dr. Kasthuri and his lab members are working on identifying the connections between the neurons in the human brain. This has been done before for C. elegans, which have only 302 neurons (compared to our 100 trillion). So, imagine how complex this project is and how much data is contained in one tiny slice of human brain?! In the article, Kasthuri said that a brain slice with the volume of “a millimeter cubed, at the resolution we would like, is about two million gigabytes of data” [1].That’s crazy. The Kasthuri lab implemented a clever method (Figure 1) to take images of 30 nm brain slices that provide the high resolution pictures they’re looking for.

Figure 1: The method Kasthuri's lab uses to take pictures of brain slices cut by the diamond knife.

Figure 1: The method Kasthuri’s lab uses to take pictures of brain slices cut by the diamond knife.

Basically, the brain volume is immersed in plastic and cut with a diamond knife to ensure precision. Since the slices are somewhat floppy, they are collected in water then picked up by a conveyor belt. While on the conveyor belt, an electron microscope takes a quick shot of the brain tissue and next a collection of images is put together to create a accurate image of the initial brain volume. Methods can be used to break down the image of the brain volume into components such as axons, dendrites, etc. (Figure 2). Pretty cool, right? The implications of this research is that understanding the connections in our brain can teach us about brain development and memory functions.

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Figure 2: Parts of brain volume (title image) deciphered into various components.

The Human Connectome project at Mass General Hospital (MGH) is working on developing high resolution neuroimaging methods. They’re working on figuring out how varying white matter fiber connectivity correlates to brain function and how cytoarchitectonics (the pattern of neuron organization/density in different areas of the brain, used to decipher Brodmann’s areas in the brain) can influence brain connectivity [2]. Methods they’re using include diffusion spectrum imaging (DSI), which is similar to diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) as both allow scientists to observe white matter connectivity since water diffuses parallel to white matter tracts. DTI measures the preferred and mean direction of the diffusion of water while DSI measures it in many different directions [3].  Scientists at MGH are also working on developing tools for high angular diffusion imaging (HARDI), which “address[es] the challenge of imaging crossing fibers by applying a stronger magnetic gradient for a longer time and capturing many more images of diffusion in various directions” [3].

Researchers are hoping to find patterns of connectivity by deciphering how our 100 trillion neurons are linked. This information could help scientists better understand the roots of different neurological or neurodegenerative diseases where perhaps neural connectivity differs significantly. This is a challenging project but the results of it could be a major breakthrough for neuroscience.

~ Srijesa K.


[1] “Untangling the Connectome”

[2] Human Connectome Project

[3]  “White’s the Matter: A basic guide to white matter imaging using diffusion MRI”


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