What comes to mind when you think of Friday? Friends. A night off from work. Movies. Fun. Rebecca Black? Yikes. I don’t mean to remind you of such a low point in the history of American pop-culture but there is, in fact, a small amount of useful information to be extracted from the phenomenon that is Rebecca Black. Why did her music spread like an epidemic through the minds of millions of teens and adults worldwide? This event can be loosely related to what the Germans like to call an öhrwurm.
The term öhrwurm literally translates in English to “earworm”, and can be described as that inescapable occurrence of getting a song stuck in your head for an hour, a day, or even months at a time. The term is misleading in that the repetition of music does not occur in the ear but within the brain. For an experience that is so familiar to most people there is still much unknown as to how and why one contracts this stuck song syndrome. More
Time and time again 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.”
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.
“Neuroscience: Is it All In Your Mind?” Miller McCune
It has been said “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’” (Isaac Asimov), and a recent observation by a Harvard Medical School lab studying the brain chemistry of Bipolar Disorder has researchers uttering that precise phrase…as well as the one alluded to in the title of this post.
The initial study prompting such observations recruited patients suffering specifically from Bipolar Disorder, also known as Manic-Depression, for 20-minute brain scans in an MRI. MRI scans subject patients to a harmless magnetic field and pulses of radio waves to create detailed structural images of various body parts, in this case, the brain. While the procedure is painless and relatively short, it can be unpleasant for reasons wholly unrelated to the magnets and radio signals; patients frequently report unrelated bodily discomfort or claustrophobia. For this reason it was all the more surprising, according to one researcher, that patients participating in the study started to report mood elevations (that for some lasted days or even a week) following the scan. One patient even subtly suggested that the researchers had slipped her something without her permission.
The use of magnets to improve the effects of depression is not uncharted territory in neuroscience and it might even sound familiar to some. Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, is another technique that has recently been adapted to depression therapy, yet it is more akin to electroconvulsive, or “electroshock”, therapy (ECT) than MRI.
TMS uses a magnetic field to induce a relatively small electric current, without causing seizure or loss of consciousness, to stimulate the left prefrontal cortex, the area thought to be under-active in depression. Whereas ECT treatments are utilized only in the most extreme depression cases because of the risk of seizure and necessity of sedation, TMS carries much fewer risks and can be used for more mild depression. While the exact mechanisms are still not known, particularly the roll of seizure for the antidepressant effects, both ECT and TMS have been cleared by the FDA.
But the magnet employed in MRI does not excite specific brain regions (if it did the entire imaging method of functional magnetic resonance imaging, fMRI, would be ineffective) and it is certainly not strong enough to induce seizures. After observing the curious side-effects of their initial study, the aforementioned researchers set up a small preliminary study with both bipolar and normal controls who confirmed respectively that the effects were not placebo, and that even those without depression can experience the mood-boosting effects of MRI.
So could a new depression treatment soon be joining the ranks of such accidental scientific breakthroughs as penicillin and Post-It notes? At this point it really is unclear. The actual mechanism of the mood-boosting effects of MRI on depressed patients is not yet understood, nor have the effects been generalized to unipolar depression. However, the safety of exposure to MRI has been confirmed by the FDA and a lack of total understanding regarding what causes the “miraculous” effects of that other magnet-based depression treatment, TMS, as well as a host of other medical treatments (including lithium for Bipolar Disorder) certainly has not prevented their use.