Is your New Year’s Resolution to get back to the gym?

Guest blog post: Welcome back! This is a repost of my friend Ty McKinney’s blog- Ty is another budding neuroscientist at the University of Utah. He is extremely kind (he helps me learn Matlab) and runs his own blog via the Branch Out Neurological Foundation about the brain that I want everyone to check out! I picked today’s post because it is applicable to right now (you can read the original here), however, he has many other interesting posts about the gut-brain connection, EEG on bikes, and mindfulness meditation, to name a few. Check out Ty the Neuro Guy’s stuff!

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Is one of your New Year’s Resolutions to get back to the gym?  I have some good news for you.  Exercise has excellent benefits for your brain. It’s common knowledge that working out is beneficial for our bodies, but what isn’t common knowledge is how it benefits our bodies, specifically our brains.  Read more about how physical activity promotes neuroplasticity and in turn brain health.

Exercise & Your Brain

Get ALL those muscles pumping.

At the dawn of the new year, we often try to make resolutions to improve ourselves so that this year might be a bit better than the last.  Becoming more physically active a popular one and it’s certainly on my list!  Accomplishing this goal can bring a flurry of health benefits to those (like myself) who have often neglected their gym bags. It’s common knowledge that working out is beneficial for our bodies, but what isn’t common knowledge is how it benefits our bodies, specifically our brains.

The single most amazing property of the brain is a thing called neuroplasticity. The brain can change itself based on its experience. Your ability to ride a bike, memorize a phone number (because we all still do that right!?) and recognize your grandmother’s face is all because of neuroplasticity. In each instance, your brain collects information and physically re-wires to integrate as that information could be useful in the future. One way we can estimate how plastic a person’s brain is through Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a chemical in our brains that promotes neuroplasticity and brain growth. People struggling with depression and schizophrenia have been found to have lower amounts of BDNF in their brain (Brunoni, et al., 2008; Green, et al, 2011), suggesting that their brain may have a reduced ability to learn and change from their experiences. Additionally, genetic differences that predispose people to low BDNF have been found to increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, though only for women (Fukomoto, et al., 2010). After reading this you’re probably wondering:

1) How can I get my BDNF levels up? And 2) What does neuroplasticity and BDNF have to do with my New Year’s Resolution of hitting the gym three times a week?

Well, it turns out that aerobic exercise (think cardio; not lifting) has some evidence of promoting neuroplasticity through BDNF. A study found that just a half hour of cardio raised BDNF levels which promoted performance on a memory test (Griffin, et al, 2011), with a rodent study finding a similar pattern for long-term exercise (Vaynman, et al, 2004).  This increased BDNF does, in fact, seem to be beneficial for our brains.  As a meta-analysis* in 2013 (Silviera, et al) found, aerobic exercise was effective at lowering depression scores (though older adults and those with mild depression observed the most significant benefits). Another meta-analysis (Wipfli, 2008) found exercise resulted in significant decreases in anxiety symptoms, which was found to be just as effective as psychotherapy (think science-based counseling) and pharmacotherapy (think drug treatment). The benefits of exercise might go beyond emotions too, as another meta-analysis (Smith, 2010) found small boosts in attention, memory and thinking/reasoning skills after at least a month of cardio training. Perhaps the most exciting finding comes from your grandma’s New Years Resolution to get more active (do grandmas “hit the gym”?). As we age, our brain starts to accumulate problems, but a meta-analysis (Sofi, 2011) found that older adults that engaged in any physical activity (not just those keeping up with their grandchildren at the gym) were on average 33% less likely to show a cognitive decline compared to older adults who reported sitting most days. While physical activity has many benefits, it is important to note that it is not a replacement for proper medical and mental health care. While exercise promotes BDNF and neuroplasticity, a more malleable brain in and of itself isn’t going to change for the better but could make other treatments more effective. It might be best to think about your running routine as the cherry on the cake for your mental and physical health; it could make all the difference but isn’t a replacement for the cake itself.

As you read this, I hope you have renewed motivation to stick to your New Years resolution of hitting the gym. While you probably knew it would give you a healthy heart, now you know that it will provide you with a healthy, plastic, BDNF-filled brain too! Sticking to your fitness goals can boost your mood and help keep mental health problems in check. Furthermore, your gym routine could help you think more clearly, which means increased productivity at work and home! Even if you start to fall behind, many of the studies also show benefits from a single work out session.  Going for a light jog at lunch could provide you the boost you need to get through those Monday afternoon blues. I know that sticking to a gym routine can be difficult, but it could be a great foundation to make your 2018 better than 2017!

*A meta-analysis is an analysis of many already published studies. There are many reasons why any single study may or may not show an effect of interest (say a benefit of physical activity), but a meta-analysis allows us to look at the general trends across studies and not be led astray from a single red herring study. Where ever possible, I use meta-analyses because they provide a more reliable picture of scientific research.

Ty the Neuro Guy is a cognitive neuroscience graduate student at the University of Utah and the Research Director for Branch Out Neurological Foundation. Inspired by the creative knowledge translation, Ty helps promote scientific literacy through this blog. You canlook forward to an article each month helping explain the science of NeuroCAM. If you have any questions or comments about this article or overall blog, feel free to email Ty McKinney at research@branchoutfoundation.com.

References

Sofi, F., Valecchi, D., Bacci, D., Abbate, R., Gensini, G. F., Casini, A., & Macchi, C. (2011). Physical activity and risk of cognitive decline: a meta‐analysis of prospective studies. Journal of internal medicine, 269(1), 107-117.

Silveira, H., Moraes, H., Oliveira, N., Coutinho, E. S. F., Laks, J., & Deslandes, A. (2013). Physical exercise and clinically depressed patients: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Neuropsychobiology, 67(2), 61-68.

Green, M. J., Matheson, S. L., Shepherd, A., Weickert, C. S., & Carr, V. J. (2011). Brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels in schizophrenia: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Molecular Psychiatry, 16(9), 960-972.

Brunoni, A. R., Lopes, M., & Fregni, F. (2008). A systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical studies on major depression and BDNF levels: implications for the role of neuroplasticity in depression. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 11(8), 1169-1180.

Shim, S. H., Hwangbo, Y., Kwon, Y. J., Jeong, H. Y., Lee, B. H., Lee, H. J., & Kim, Y. K. (2008). Increased levels of plasma brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in children with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 32(8), 1824-1828.

Fukumoto, N., Fujii, T., Combarros, O., Kamboh, M. I., Tsai, S. J., Matsushita, S., … & Hyman, B. T. (2010). Sexually dimorphic effect of the Val66Met polymorphism of BDNF on susceptibility to Alzheimer’s disease: New data and meta‐analysis. American Journal of Medical Genetics Part B: Neuropsychiatric Genetics, 153(1), 235-242.

Heinrich, C., Lähteinen, S., Suzuki, F., Anne-Marie, L., Huber, S., Häussler, U., … & Depaulis, A. (2011). Increase in BDNF-mediated TrkB signaling promotes epileptogenesis in a mouse model of mesial temporal lobe epilepsy. Neurobiology of disease, 42(1), 35-47.

Griffin, É. W., Mullally, S., Foley, C., Warmington, S. A., O’Mara, S. M., & Kelly, Á. M. (2011). Aerobic exercise improves hippocampal function and increases BDNF in the serum of young adult males. Physiology & behavior, 104(5), 934-941.

Vaynman, S., Ying, Z., & Gomez‐Pinilla, F. (2004). Hippocampal BDNF mediates the efficacy of exercise on synaptic plasticity and cognition. European Journal of Neuroscience, 20(10), 2580-2590.

#MeToo or to not #MeToo

Guest author: Kimberly Bourne, Lab Manager of the Intergroup Studies Lab at Davidson College.  To learn more about Kim’s research, see her lab website, or check out the references she provided below!

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#MeToo or to not #MeToo 

“I’ve had multiple experiences of harassment and sexual assault, and I don’t speak about them very often, but after hearing all the stories these past few days and hearing these brave women speak up tonight, the things that we’re kind of told to sweep under the rug and not talk about, it’s made me want to speak up and speak up loudly because I felt less alone this week than I’ve ever felt in my entire career…For the young women in this room, life is going to be different because we’re with you, we have your back and it makes me feel better…If we can raise consciousness and really help create change, that’s what’s going to change this industry and change society.”

– Reese Witherspoon in response to the #MeToo movement

The explosion of the #MeToo movement in the last year not only highlighted sexual assault but also demonstrated the prevalence of sexism in women’s everyday lives. As social psychologists in the Davidson Intergroup Studies Lab, we have been working to understand the motivations behind confronting sexism, and the ways in which people confront and respond to being confronted. So, how do these social psychological concepts apply to the #MeToo movement?

Reese Witherspoon mentions experiencing harassment and sexual assault on multiple occasions but not speaking up about them often. For many women this is a very common experience as confronting sexism can be difficult, and costly. People who question victims of sexual assault or harassment ask why nothing was said: “Why didn’t you say no?” “Why didn’t you report them?”  Or “Why didn’t you speak up or stand up for yourself?” Unfortunately, there is often a disconnect in people’s beliefs about what they imagine they would do when encountering sexism, and what they realistically do. In a study by Woodzicka and LaFrance (2001) women imagined being interviewed by a man for a job in which they were asked a sexually harassing question. Sixty eight percent of the women said they would refuse to answer the sexually harassing question, but in reality when a separate group of women was actually put in this exact situation, no one refused to answer. This points to a troubling reality, that the costs associated with confronting often outweigh the benefits; discouraging women from speaking up. Perceived costs such as being disliked, impolite or perceived as a complainer, having ones’ value dismissed, social sanction, and getting fired are common reasons women do not confront. For women who experience sexual harassment in the workplace a severe perceived cost of confronting is retaliation (Fitzgerald, Swan & Fischer, 1995). With all of the costs associated with confronting, what was different about the #MeToo movement?

In contrast to direct confrontation, the #MeToo movement provided a safe way for women to voice their experiences without necessarily risking the physical, emotional or work related costs of directly confronting their perpetrators. In this way, it could have buffered real or perceived costs of confronting and boosted the perceived benefits. Like Reese Witherspoon described, hearing women speak up, and the idea of creating lasting change for future generations of women motivated her to speak up. Benefits to confronting are varied – financial remuneration, policy change, self-satisfaction, improved interpersonal interactions – but the most motivating benefit is that confronting will make a difference and stop future sexist acts (Good, Moss-Racusin, & Sanchez, 2012). For Reese Witherspoon, a self-identified feminist, this was likely motivating. The more a woman identifies as a feminist the more likely she is to confront sexism (Ayres, Friedman, & Leaper, 2009). And if you are an activist whose goal is to educate perpetrators by confronting, you are more likely to respond more assertively to sexist incidents than those less identified as activists (Hyers, 2007). The motivation to make a difference by preventing future assaults, improving the work place environment, working towards social equality, etc. is a clear benefit to confronting sexism. For feminists and activists, the guilt associated with not confronting could also have been a factor in motivating those to contribute to the #MeToo movement. On social media seeing women posting their own experiences associated with #MeToo, may have given women who are less identified as feminist a feeling of security that motivated them to share their story. Whereas for women who are more identified as feminist seeing all of those posts on social media may have motivated them to share their experiences as a way to maintain their self-image of being a good group member in addition to wanting to make a difference.

Editor’s Note: I love Kim’s post because, aside from the obvious benefit her research gives women who experience sexism, she shatters our stereotypes of what a scientist is. The scientific method is useful in the way we traditionally think of it- developing drugs, understanding natural phenomena, etc., but can also be exceptionally powerful when we apply it to study human social interactions or behavior.

References

Ayres, M. M., Friedman, C. K., & Leaper, C. (2009). Individual and situational factors related to young women’s likelihood of confronting sexism in their everyday lives. Sex Roles, 61, 449-460. doi: 10.1007/s11199-009-9635-3

Elle. (2017, October 17). Reese Witherspoon Reveals She Was Assaulted by a Director at 16. Retrieved from https://www.elle.com/culture/celebrities/a13032565/reese-witherspoon-assaulted-by-director/

Fitzgerald, L. F., Swan, S., & Fischer, K. (1995). Why didn’t she just report him? The psychological and legal implications of women’s responses to sexual harassment. Journal of Social Issues, 51, 117–138. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1995.tb01312.x

Good, J. J., Moss-Racusin, C. A., & Sanchez, D. T., (2012). When do we confront? Perceptions of costs and benefits predict confronting discrimination on behalf of the self and others. Psychology of Women Quarterly 36, 210-226. doi: 10.1177/0361684312440958

Hyers, L. (2007). Resisting prejudice every day: Exploring women’s assertive responses to anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism, heterosexism, and sexism. Sex Roles, 56, 1-12. doi:10.1007/s11199-006-9142-8

Woodzicka, J. A., & LaFrance, M. (2001). Real versus imagined gender harassment. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 15-30. doi: 10.1111/0022-4537.00199

 

So, what is chemistry research like?

Guest author: Amy LoTemplio, Colby College Senior, Biochemistry Major

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Hello science enthusiasts! My name is Amy LoTemplio and I am Sara’s sister (surprise!) I work in an organic chemistry research lab at Colby college in Maine where I will be a senior this year. I am currently working on a polymer project for Professor Reuben Hudson and Professor Jeff Katz. I have been working in the Katz/Hudson lab since January of Sophomore year. I was even able to go on a research trip to Japan with my professor and a peer for a week. I have learned a lot over the past few years, and i will share some of my research with you here in this blog.

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The best way to think about my research if you are an outsider to synthetic/organic chemistry is to imagine yourself as a master chef baking your favorite chocolate cake (maybe it’s even chocolate lava cake). Your pour all of your ingredients into the bowl and then you reach for something to use for mixing. You are in someone else’s kitchen and you find a strange object with a weird shape that is labeled “use for mixing cake batter.” You follow the instructions and use this mystery device, and WOW! It mixed the cake batter twice as quickly as the cake batter mixer that you have been using your whole life. On the side of this new mixer, you see that it says “lifetime guaranteed” meaning that it can be used again and again without the need to go to Bed Bath and Beyond to buy another, or make another with materials around the house. You get super excited, and you want to understand the functions of all of the pieces on the mixer, so you scan it with your eyes, and measure it, and take notes on its appearance. You want to understand the functions of these pieces because, who knows, maybe you could use one of the parts as inspiration for you to design a new coffee maker, or bread cooker, or microwave. You then think about the possibilities of using this mixer for other purposes, like mixing cookie batter, or whipping cream for fresh strawberry shortcake. Your try out a series of recipes and take notes about how well the mixer functions for each recipe. You then wonder how you could make the mixer even better. Should you add another handle? Should you tighten the screws? The potential for this mixer is endless!

To compare the cake example to the Katz/Hudson research, the cake recipe is an overall reaction, written neatly in a lab notebook instead of a Betty crocker cookbook, the mixer is a chemical chain called a polymer that may be used to decrease the energy required for a reaction to produce products (the cake) from the reactants (the ingredients). The special thing about the polymers in the Katz/Hudson research is that they show evidence of recycling capabilities. Just like the mixer in the example, the polymers may be used multiple times before they need to be replaced. Also similar to the example, my job, along with another fellow student, is to understand as much as possible about the polymers so that they may be optimized, or best used. This entails measuring features of the polymers and using them in different reactions, in order to establish the ideal conditions and recipes for their use. In the lab, we use very small amounts of chemicals instead of large amounts that would be used in a cake recipe. This is because we do not want to waste ingredients while we are exploring the capabilities of the polymers. Instead of scanning the polymers with our eyes like the chef did with the mixer, we use large machines in order to look at our polymers because they are too small to be examined with the eye.

Overall, these chemical mixers are exciting because they may one day make converting energy from chemical to electrical energy more green, as these polymers are recyclable. This prevents the need for buying new parts for the polymers and also saves the time that would have been dedicated to building new polymers. I am happy to be a part of building and understanding this science. If you would like more details about this specific research area, I have attached some references to more detailed articles. You can also ask me questions in the comments section!

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As part of my research, I got to travel to Washington D.C. for a chemistry conference. Here is me and my labmate Georganna stopping by to visit Maine senator Angus King.

References

Hudson, R.; Katz, J. L. Oxacalixarenes in Calixarenes and Beyond; Neri, P., Sessler, J. L., Wang, M.-X., Eds.; Springer, 2016; pp 399−420.

Hudson, R.; Zhang, H.; LoTemplio, A.; Benedetto, G.; Hamasaka, G.; Yamada, Y.; Katz, J.; Uozumi, Y. Poly(Meta-Phenylene Oxides) For The Design Of A Tunable, Efficient, And Reusable Catalytic Platform. Chemical Communications 2018, 54, 2878-2881.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_cell

So like, what is EEG?

If you’ve been on my website before, you’ve probably read that I use EEG in my research, and perhaps thought I was excitedly spelling “eggs” the wrong way. As exciting as this would be, that unfortunately isn’t what’s happening. EEG is short for electroencephalography, which is a non-invasive neuroimaging technique.

So like, what does that sentence actually mean? electro-encephalo-graphy is basically Latin for “electric brain writing” (which, coincidentally, sounds WAY more metal than EEG). Non-invasive neuroimaging means that we can observe the dynamics of your brain without cutting it open. How? With electricity!

Your brain, like your phone or computer, communicates within itself electrically (and also chemically, but that’s a story for another day). This means that if we put electrodes, which measure current, on top of your head, which is attached to your neck, we can pick up a teeeeeny tiny electrical current- this is your brain talking! A box called an amplifier does exactly what it sounds like it does- it amplifies the signal so that it’s actually observable to humans– kind of like a microscope. The amplifier sends these large signals to the computer, and voila! I can see your brain communicating on my computer screen. Still confused? Hopefully you are a Stranger Things fan, because a nice visual of EEG is Eleven with the Coke can in season 1.

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Eleven is wearing an EEG cap in this scene.  There are a few things that are different about this scene and what it’s like to participate in one of my lab’s studies. A) Unfortunately, none of my participants have telekenisis… that I know of B) we are WAY less creepy and C) EEG technology has improved dramatically since the 80’s- a modern day EEG cap looks something like this:

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What are you exactly measuring? 

We are measuring, essentially, what you may hear referred to as “brain waves,” because they look kind of like waves. When they appear on our computer, they look like this: Human_EEG_artefacts

Some complicated math that our computers do can break that big, complicated messy wave into a bunch of smaller waves that are overlayed on top of each other. The wave categories most scientists look at are delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma (not pictured). waves1-1

Contrary to popular belief, one wave doesn’t necessarily “mean” anything in particular- it depends a lot on the context and where in the brain it is coming from as to what it “means.” So, no, I can not “read your brain.” We can look at how much each of these oscillations are occurring in different parts of your brain. These are called frequency analyses.

There is another type of analysis you can do called an event-related potential. In this situation, the person with the EEG cap would be doing a very task on the computer (e.g. click whenever you see an O, but not when you see and X)- when these “events” happen, like when you see an O, the computer will mark it in the data. Later on, we can average all the activity around that event to get an average waveform. There are many different wave forms that can indicate many different things. I will discuss more of them at another time.

That’s cool. But like, what do we actually use EEG for?

EEG is used in many different scenarios. Clinical neuropsychologists may use it to help diagnose and understand medical conditions like seizures, deafness in infants, sleep conditions, etc. There is currently research going on that is trying to understand whether EEG can be used as a biomarker for schizophrenia, alzhiemer’s, and numerous other cognitive diseases.

As for us, cognitive neuroscientists, we use it to understand cognition more broadly. Using the scientific method, we are able to use EEG to better understand how vision, attention, memory, language, etc. all work. For example, my lab uses frequency analyses to discover how the brain changes when we spend time in nature; specifically, we look at the theta frequency in the midline (top middle part) of your brain. Scientists are still trying to figure out what exactly midline theta represents in the brain, but it is commonly associated with multitasking and cognitive exertion, suggesting that your brain may be less overloaded while outside.

Where can I learn more!?!?

Youtubing EEG would be a good place to get a visual as to what EEG actually is, and what it looks like.

If you are a college student or advanced high school student, I would recommend Steve Luck’s “An Introduction to the Event Related Potential”- buy it online or check to see if you local library has it!

What is this blog? and like, why?

Hello readers. Over the past few years that I have been involved in research, it has become apparent to me that people don’t really know what research actually is. This is not to point fingers at anyone, in fact perhaps the number one question I tried to ask other graduate students when I was interviewing for graduate school was “but like.. what do you do all day?” (I am purposefully leaving this question unanswered so that future graduate students can fantasize that I am working with unfathomable productivity towards a goal and not eating candy while taking 4 hours to write one paragraph in my office).

Indeed, science seems to take on an air of mystique in the general public- I remember thinking when I was younger that scientists were old white men that wore lab coats and goggles and either a) brewed Cancer Cures as a happy accident or b) menacingly cackled to themselves while slowly building their annihilatrix to destroy the world, or to steal the Krabby Patty secret formula.

It has occurred to me that I was not, and am not, alone. Not many people understand how science operates on a daily basis, how it involves them, who scientists are, or that to some degree, they themselves operate as scientists in their own lives.

Even this article bemoaning American adult’s poor understanding of science ironically demonstrates a misunderstanding of the very core of what science is. Science is not a list of facts, but an active process that involves many stages of trial and error, of mistakes and triumphs, mistakes that turn into triumphs, and rigorous testing and questioning of what we claim to already know. In short- we are truth seekers, and though we may use many different tools (from EEG to bug nets to chemicals), we all strive to meet this same objective.

I’m here to challenge the fact that until college, one of the only scientists I knowingly interacted with was Plankton. Scientists, in fact, are usually not microscopic organisms. We’re humans- humans that are a multitude of different races, genders, religions, sexual orientations, abilities, ethnicities, nationalities, etc.

How to use this blog if you are a scientist.

As much of a narcissist as I am, I would really love for this blog to not just be me ranting about my own work and why it’s important. Plus, I can attempt to explain chemistry, but I think I may have actually burned my chemistry 101 book after taking the introductory course in college. I would love to get contributions from you and your friends, no matter what field you are in! (And yes, as a pseudo social scientist, I count social sciences as science too). I would love to have you contribute either a) in the form of an interview with me or b) in the form of you writing about some of your work, or some work in your field you deem important.

How to use this blog if you are a teacher:

Share this blog with your students. Encourage them to comment with questions, reactions, additional interesting related things they found. Encourage them to comment just to say hi, or to ask a question about how you get involved in science. If you are local to the area, contact me or my friends, and we’d be happy to come talk to your classroom.

How to use this blog if you are a Regular Person:

Please read it! Share it with your friends. Use one of the posts to prove a point in a facebook argument with your aunt. Question. Critique. Engage. Read more. Reach out to the scientist in your life (there is definitely at least one).

How to use this blog if you are a dog: 

You don’t need this blog. You are already perfect.