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Fixing Painful Memories While You Sleep

taking-a-nap

When Todd was five, the neighbor’s cat went ballistic and gave him a really bad scratch. Twenty years later, Todd still steers clear of cats. In fact, areas of his brain involved in emotion and fear light up, and Todd starts to sweat and feel anxious, if someone even mentions cats

Can Todd train his brain to react differently? But now Todd has fallen in love with a woman who owns several cats and can’t imagine her life without her feline friends.

For years, people have sought relief from fearful or painful memories by exploring them in the safety of a psychologist’s office. There’s something about activating the regions of the brain involved in those memories—in settings where the anticipated outcome never materializes—that creates new associations. In other words, if Todd racks up enough scratch-free experiences talking about cats in the safety of a counselor’s office, seeing cats safely from a distance, or petting cats without consequence, the link Todd’s brain makes between cats and scratches will begin to weaken.

Scientists are figuring out a new way to desensitize the brain through these kinds of repeated, pain-free exposures. And they’re doing it during sleep. 

Researchers created fearful memories by delivering mild electric shocks to study participants at the same time the participants were shown pictures of faces and exposed to distinct scents, like lemon or mint. Pretty soon, all it took was seeing the pictures and smelling the scent and participants would break out in a slight sweat, their amygdalas on alert, anticipating the mild shock.

After training the brain to respond fearfully to certain images and smells, could researchers retrain the brain? Could they desensitize those memories? Create pain-free associations that would begin to diffuse the painful associations they had fostered? Even more intriguing, could they create pain-free associations while the participants were asleep?

They managed to do just that, and they accomplished it by having participants nap in the lab with electrodes on their scalps to monitor brain waves. During slow-wave sleep, when recent memories are most active, researchers repeatedly exposed the nappers to the same scents—lemon and mint—this time without any shocks.

At first, even while sleeping, participants responded the same way they had when they were awake, by sweating and with brain activity that indicated the same kind of negative anticipation. Before long, however, with repeated exposures, the volunteers began to show less negative reactions both in their bodies and their brains.

People who slept longer and received more “safe” exposures benefited the most from the treatment.

After waking up, participants continued to show decreased responses to the photos and scents, meaning the desensitization they demonstrated while sleeping stuck with them.

Will nap therapy replace talk therapy in the near future? Probably not. Although if the two approaches are ever combined, time spent on your psychologist’s couch might mean bringing along a pillow, as well.  

Texting Alters Teen Brain Chemistry

texting vid

New data on teen texting is disturbing, to say the least. Over the past three years, teen texting is up 600%, with the average number of texts among teens hitting 3000 texts every month. Increasingly, doctors are treating teens for sleep disorders because one out of five teens wake up at night so they can text.

According to a report aired on ABC, doctors are describing the teen texting phenomenon as a physical addiction that can alter the brain.

Texting is addicting because the instant gratification of getting a text back floods the brain with dopamine, which is linked to pleasure and reward. In fact, the changes in brain chemistry are not unlike the changes that occur in the brain of someone addicted to drugs. Child neurologist Dr. Michael Seyffert explains that “Neuroimaging studies have shown that those kids who are texting have that area of the brain light up the same as an addict using heroin.”

You can watch the ABC report on texting here.  

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Are Learning Styles Determined by Brain Skills or Preference?

Scientific-American Should teachers teach to individual learning styles?

Does research show that teaching to learning styles is effective?

Are learning styles determined by brain skills or preference?

An article in Scientific American explores these and other questions that matter to educators and parents everywhere.

The article begins with the story of Dr. Ken Gibson who, inspired by his own reading challenges, founded LearningRx, a brain training company that strengthens cognitive skills weaknesses.

According to Dr. Gibson, cognitive weaknesses are often at the root of preferred learning styles. That’s because students lean on their particular cognitive strengths as a way of compensating for one or more weaknesses. “We have a natural tendency to use the skills that are strongest,” Gibson adds. “That becomes our learning style.”

He does a great job of explaining why learning preferences develop. The burning question, then, is this: When schools accommodate those preferences by teaching to individual learning styles, does it help? Sophie Guteri, the article’s author, examines several studies, quoting researchers who say there’s no real evidence that accommodating individual learning preferences results in higher grades or better test performance.

In the article, Gibson doesn’t chime in on whether or not accommodations work. His point seems to be, instead, that they shouldn’t be necessary. That is, in fact, the premise behind his company, LearningRx. At LearningRx, students are given a cognitive skills assessment to identify weaknesses in skills including memory, logic, visual processing and auditory processing. Based on the results of that assessment, LearningRx brain trainers customize training exercises to target and strengthen those weaknesses. As weaknesses are strengthened, students find themselves better equipped to process incoming information in a greater variety of formats.

In this fascinating article, Guteri does an excellent job exploring the complexities of the issue, while the studies cited create a compelling case for interventions, such as brain training, that improve students’ ability to learn regardless of how material in the classroom is presented. 

Lies and Their Impact on Your Brain

iStock_000000335618SmallYour grandmother asks how you liked her Spam® burger. Gulp. Choosing your words carefully, you say, “I’ve never eaten anything like it! What unique texture!” Your boss asks why you’re late. Gulp. You tell him about the accident that tied up two lanes of traffic, but you conveniently leave out the fact that you also overslept. 

Oh, the little white lies we tell. If we’re honest, most of us have undoubtedly stretched the truth at times. Call it exaggeration or fibbing, but leading deception expert Pamela Meyer concludes that the average person lies between 10 and 200 times every day. White lies are the seemingly harmless “untruths” we offer to minimize someone’s disappointment or anger, avoid embarrassment or forego an unpleasant outcome. But lies of any degree can affect more than your reputation, your career and your relationships—they can mess with your brain, alter your health and decrease your longevity. Really? Yes really.

“I don’t think that dress makes you look fat.”

When you tell the truth, you honestly state or recall something, but lying takes extra effort because you have to distort the facts and then convince others of your story. Lying increases anxiety and releases stress hormones, which increase heart rate and blood pressure. Stress from telling even little lies also lowers the number of infection-fighting white blood cells in your body, and can contribute to other medical conditions including depression, obesity and cancer. Over time, the cumulative effect of lies and stress can even shorten your life.

Psychology professor Anita Kelly at the University of Notre Dame tracked the effects of lying on the health of 110 adults for 10 weeks. Participants who were instructed to avoid lying at all costs reported improvements in their relationships, as well as fewer problems with tension, insomnia, backaches, headaches and sore throats than participants who were given permission to stretch the truth as needed.

“I’m fine. No, really.”

In research published in Psychology Today, 85 percent of restaurant diners admitted to white lies when asked about their food and dining experience. (“How is the blackened trout?” “Fine, just fine.”) Even omitting the truth over something as “trivial” as a meal can strain—and even shrink!— your brain. Medical researchers have discovered that the brain’s prefrontal cortex is most susceptible to stress and actually contracts when the body is tense and anxious. Perhaps we’d all do better by following mindful Albert Einstein who advised, “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.”

“The check’s in the mail.”

As easy as it is to fudge the truth now and then, it’s important to tell the truth for the health of our relationships, bodies and brains.

So the next time you hear: Do these pants make my butt look fat? Do you like my new haircut? Just how many cookies did you eat? Gulp. Go ahead. Fess up. Your brain and body will thank you.  

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Grow Your Own Brain-Healthy Vegetables and Fish!

Aquaponics is a relatively new gardening technology that grows fish and vegetables together.

From a gardening standpoint, aquaponics is sheer genius, creating a symbiotic system in which fish create nutrients for the plants, and plants filter the water for the fish. The outcome? Healthier, happier fish; healthier, happier veggies. No chemicals allowed. Oh, and because the same water is recycled continually through the plants and fish tank, there’s no big water bill, either.

From small backyard systems to big commercial farms, people are using aquaponics to feed their families and even their communities with organic veggies and edible fish such as tilapia, perch, catfish, and even trout.

So what does that have to do with your brain?

Green, leafy veggies are great for your brain because they are often full of vitamins, iron, folic acid and antioxidants, all necessary for cognitive health, In fact, Harvard Medical School researchers discovered that women who ate the most green leafy veggies (compared to women who ate fewer veggies) experienced less cognitive decline as they aged.

Plus, many vegetables are also mostly water, which helps you stay hydrated. When your brain doesn’t get enough water, it can lead to headaches, overall low energy, mental fatigue and eventually memory problems and confusion.

And while aquaponics systems are limited to freshwater fish that don’t contain the levels of brain-healthy Omega-3 oil found in fatty saltwater fish, it’s still a healthy way to eat. In fact, tilapia—which do well in aquaponics systems—are exceptionally low in calories and high in protein, offering benefits related to your overall health, heart health and healthy weight (all important factors to your brain).

Plus, a key way to keep your brain healthy and active is to learn new skills. And for many of us, learning how to grow fish and veggies together definitely falls into that category.

If you’re up for a fun gardening adventure, click on the images in this blog to watch videos, or check out this YouTube search.  Aquaponics gives you healthier veggies, healthier fish, a healthier brain, a healthier heart and maybe even a slimmer waistline.

What’s not to like about that?

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How Does the Brain Ignore Self-Tickling?

If someone makes a grab for that ticklish place above your knee, you double over in laughing protest. When you grab your own knee, nothing happens.

You can’t tickle yourself because your brain doesn’t pay as much attention to sensations caused by your own actions. In fact, brain scans show that neurons in the cerebral cortex—the part of the brain responsible for attention, awareness and consciousness—are less active during a self-tickle than when someone else is doing the tickling!

Scientists say the brain distinguishes between expected sensations caused by our own actions (for example, the pressure of the keyboard against our fingertips when we type) and unexpected sensations from our environment (for example, if someone sneaks up from behind and taps us on the shoulder). The reason? Heightened awareness of unexpected contact from our environment helps keep us safe.

And, perhaps, being less aware of our own movements keeps us sane. Imagine if you were constantly aware of the feel of your shirt against your skin, ever mindful of the vibrations of your own vocal chords as you spoke, or acutely aware of the feel of your own hair against your neck. That kind of nonstop mental stimulation would drive you nuts. When you look at it that way, not being able to tickle yourself is a small price to pay for sanity.

 

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Brain Training Helps David Land His Dream Job

Like a lot of kids, David played sports in school. But concussions sustained on the wrestling mat and gridiron hurt his ability to perform well in school and even in his career. After graduating from a police academy, David was rejected by 56 police departments because his test scores were too low. The 32-year-old husband and father began to wonder if his dream job would ever turn into reality.

David explains what happened next in a video testimonial that was voted the winning entry in a quarterly contest sponsored by LearningRx.

LearningRx is the largest one-on-one brain training company in the world, with nearly 80 centers across the country. Their clinically proven programs consist of intense mental exercises—done one-on-one with a personal trainer—that stimulate the brain to strengthen existing neural connections and even create new ones. The results?  Kids and adults who go through their programs experience dramatic and measurable improvements in how fast and efficiently they can think, read, learn, focus and remember.

David contacted the LearningRx Brain Training Center in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He worked with a professional brain trainer for 12 weeks. He calls his improvements after brain training “amazing.”

“At first I looked at my trainer and I’m like, ‘You’re crazy. There’s no way I’m going to be able to do this stuff,” he says of the day he began the program. “But on my last day of training, we went back and repeated the exercises I’d done on that first day, and I just sat back and said, ‘I had a problem with that?’ It’s amazing how fast I progressed and how much I could comprehend at the end. I was amazed.”

Clients of all ages turn to personal brain training, and include kids and adults with learning struggles; people with ADHD, dyslexia and autism; high achieving students and career adults who want even sharper mental performance; senior adults looking to improve memory and stay mentally sharp; and victims of strokes or traumatic brain injuries who need to regain lost brain skills.

In his contest-winning video, David describes the improvements in his memory and mental skills that allowed him to –finally!—land the job of his dreams. In the final week of his 12-week brain training program, David tested with yet another police department. This time he landed the job, and was sworn into service on January 3rd.

Click here to watch the winning video. 

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The Benefits of Holiday Laughter

Whether you’re riding in a one-horse sleigh, sledding, caroling, baking cookies or chillin’ with family and friends, the holidays brim with opportunities for lots of laughter.

What’s all that joviality doing to your brain?

Laughing stimulates a part of your brain called the nucleus accumbens, which then releases the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. This creates a brain-chemical chain reaction that elevates your mood, makes you feel connected to those around you, reduces stress & pain, and even boosts your immunity!

 

 

 

 

Here are some other interesting things you may not know about laughter: 

  • When you laugh, you use 15 different facial muscles
  • The average grown up laughs approximately 17 times every day
  • We are 30 times more likely to laugh when we’re with other people than when we are by ourselves
  • Laughing causes the inner lining of blood vessels to relax and expand, increasing blood flow to your entire body.

Finally, a good belly laugh burns 3.5 calories. Which is a good thing to remember as we’re eating all those holiday goodies. 

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Brain Awareness Week

Brain Awareness Week (BAW) this March 14 – 20 is the worldwide campaign to increase awareness about the progress and benefits of brain research. One of the many global events scheduled during this 16th annual BAW is the National Brain Bee at the University of Maryland, Baltimore on March 18 and 19. The Bee is designed to stimulate high school students to learn about neuroscience with the lofty goal of inspiring them to go on to serve the world as brain researchers.

Like spelling bees, kids first compete at the local level, and then move on to the national and international competition. The high school contestants answer questions about electroencephalographs, dendrites, peptides, positron emission topography, netrins and semaphorins, and much more. One of the study guides is the 74-page 2008 edition of Brain Facts, published by The Society for Neuroscience.

Looking for a shorter update on some of the most important brain facts? Check out the LearningRx Brain Awareness Quiz. LearningRx created the fun and informative quiz in hopes that people will learn – and share – some of the most important things researchers have already discovered and proven about the brain. Much of the quiz focuses on the brain’s amazing ability to change and improve at any age.

LearningRx helps brains change every day! A study of test results for more than 2,500 LearningRx students from 2009 shows LearningRx brain training brought significant improvement, with students gaining an average of 15 IQ points.

LearningRx Vice President of Research and Development Tanya Mitchell says this remains one of the most important messages to spread during Brain Awareness Week. “People need to know they don’t have to settle for the mental capacity they’re born with. Strengthening cognitive skills leads to a smarter, faster, more efficient brain, a higher IQ, and all the benefits that tend to go along with it: more confidence, a competitive edge in school or the job market and eventually, a higher-paying career.”

And it’s even better if that career ends up being that of a world-serving brain researcher.

Want to learn more about the brain this Brain Awareness Week? Start by taking our Brain Awareness Quiz!

Read Across America Day

It’s Read Across America Day – a day set aside to encourage every person in America to read or be read to for fun. This annual nationwide observance coincides with the birthday of Dr. Seuss, the American writer best known for creating children’s books and inspiring the love of reading in four generations of kids.

The beloved Doc died in 1991, six years before the first Read Across America Day, and while he would most likely have been tickled with the event, the state of reading in America may have him rolling over in his grave.

A 2007 report by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), shows reading literacy has dropped since Seuss was alive. To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence gathered statistics from more than 40 studies on the reading skills and habits of Americans of all ages. The report unveiled trends that Americans are reading less, reading less well, and graduating from school less prepared.

According to the official website of Dr. Seuss, a few weeks before his death, when asked if there was anything he might have left unsaid, Seuss replied, “Any message or slogan? Whenever things go a bit sour in a job I’m doing, I always tell myself, ‘You can do better than this.’ The best slogan I can think of to leave with the kids of the U.S.A. would be ‘We can…and we’ve got to…do better than this.” Read the rest of this entry »

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