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How Your Brain Slows You Down When You’re Sick

How Your Brain Slows You Down When You’re Sick

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Daily brief research updates from the cognitive sciences

We all know that feeling when you’ve fallen sick, and you just want to curl up in your bed sheets and sleep the day away. You have little desire to move, and also probably aren’t hungry either.

You may not know, but can probably work it out, that this is actually good for you – it helps recovery. For example, in animals that are forced to eat when sick, mortality increases. So obviously the body is doing something that benefits us – even if it feels rubbish at the time.

But how this behaviour is controlled was a mystery: there could be multiple factors influencing this and multiple communication channels between body and brain. However, a group of researchers at Rockefeller University have now pinpointed a set of neurons that control this and the surprise is that it is only a small group of neurons that seem to influence this and not a distributed network. One small cluster that activates your sick behaviour.

This is in a region called the dorsal vagal complex, this sits at the base of the brain at the top of the spinal cord. And importantly it is before what is known as the blood brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier is the brain’s protective wall that restricts what can get into the brain – the brain is a pretty important part of us so best to be safe. This means it receives input directly from the blood flowing through our bodies and can hence respond to this. The vagus nerve is the key parasympathetic pathway controlling multiple factors such as digestion, heart rate, and immune system function, and making this is an important crossroads for communication between the body and brain.

The team of researchers then activated this small population in neurons with mice who had been infected with dead bacteria to trigger and immune responses (but without getting sick). Activating or deactivating these cells increased sickly or reduced sickly behaviours.

So, there you have it, a small population of neurons slows you down when you’re sick – but, remmber, it’s for your benefit.

Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

Andy is author of leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker, speaking on the brain and human behaviour.

Andy is also a masters athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

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References

Anoj Ilanges, Rani Shiao, Jordan Shaked, Ji-Dung Luo, Xiaofei Yu, Jeffrey M. Friedman. 
Brainstem ADCYAP1+ neurons control multiple aspects of sickness behaviour
Nature, 2022; 609 (7928): 761
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-05161-7

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How Immune Cells Can Rejuvenate Your Brain

How Immune Cells Can Rejuvenate Your Brain

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Daily brief research updates from the cognitive sciences

brain cell aging

There are, of course, many ways to help rejuvenate you brain. I have written about many of them, but they are often considered a bit “boring”: things like exercise and sleep. Trust me you shouldn’t underestimate those, but even those don’t always block the progress of various neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and this research just published has discovered a new mechanism in the brain that helps keep the brain healthy.

Many of these neurodegenerative diseases, with slow but severe decline of brain capacity and deterioration of brain function, are marked by toxic clusters of protein being collected in the brain. The system is not clearing them out and these clusters build up and impair brain function in multiple ways.

The group of researchers at Washington State University focused on cells previously little researched. They focused on immune cells that sit at the periphery of the brain – those that surround the brain and the spinal cord. The reason that these are important is that they help with the flow of spinal and brain fluid. Your brain and spinal cord are awash in fluid, and it is also through this fluid that the brain can clear out toxins.

They focused on cells called, wait for it, parenchymal border macrophages, let’s just call them PBMs. These cells help regulate the blood flow in arteries which in turn helps the flow of cleansing fluid in the brain. They therefore sit at the interface of the brain and its cleansing fluid flow. This fluid flow decreases noticeably after 50 years of age and is impaired in many neurodegenerative diseases.

Drieu et al. targeted these BPM’s by delivering a protein that reactivates their function, something called, jargon alert again, macrophage colony-stimulating factor. Jargon aside this boosted activity of these BPM’s and this increased fluid flow in the brain. This basically rejuvenated these cells and hence also some aspects of brain function particularly fluid flow and therefore detoxication ability of the brain.

However, sorry to say that this research was in mice – this means it is a long way off from anything ready for human beings – it is very early days.

However, it is fascinating to see that different targets have potential large impacts on brain function – here we can see that a set of immune cells in the brain can influence a key and general aspect of brain function and help to rejuvenate this.

But for now, the only way to rejuvenate your brain is to revert to the old-fashioned methods: exercise, cognitive activity, sleep, and nutrition. And that is something we can all do!

Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

Andy is author of leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker, speaking on the brain and human behaviour.

Andy is also a masters athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

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References

Antoine Drieu, Siling Du, Steffen E. Storck, et al. 
Parenchymal border macrophages regulate the flow dynamics of the cerebrospinal fluid
Nature, 2022
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-05397-3

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What is the Impact of Gaming on Teenage Mental Health?

What is the Impact of Gaming on Teenage Mental Health?

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Daily brief research updates from the cognitive sciences

gaming mental health teenager

Iconsidered many titles for this short review. It could have read “Gaming Improves Mental Health of Teenagers” – that may have garnered a few more clicks – not stricly true though. It could also have read “Gaming Has No Impacts on Mental Health of Teenagers”, however, the data can be seen in two ways.

So, I settled on the simple question so as not to mislead too much. But the long and short of it is that we do not need to be overly concerned with gaming rotting our kids’ brains, causing emotional withdrawal, and a host of mental health problems. In the vast majority of cases there is no impact and in a sizable proportion heavy gaming seem to improve mental health! So, let’s dig into what this study did and didn’t find.

This data comes from the 2021 OxWell survey which analysis data from surveys of school children between 12 and 18 in the UK. This dataset had 12’725 participants. And what did they find?

They found that:

  • 31.2% play games for at least 3.5 hours a day – this is the “heavy gamer” group
  • There was no significant correlation between playing games and mental health issues
  • 8% reported not gaming
  • They classified 6 types of gamers
  • 8% were classed as maladaptive (i.e. experience negative effects)

So, on average no real cause for concern. However, there are some surprising and worrying results also. One surprising result is that 44% of heavy gamers experienced higher well being than those who games less or not at all. Who would have though it? On the negative side there is, indeed, a subgroup who do experience negative effects. A small proportion of the heavy gamers experience a loss of control and wellbeing issues.

A notable subgroup was the 2% who are classed as maladaptive phone gamers, playing mostly on their phone, being mostly female, and are more likely to have experienced abuse and other traumatic events. This seems to point that traumatic life experience are pushing some individuals to maladaptive behaviours – and this also opens the door to intervening and being able to identify these and hence also pre-empt the issues.

It therefore seems that gaming is not the cause of mental health issues but can contribute to underlying issues. Of course, the argument could also be that gaming reduces other activities and so can also over longer terms have a negative impact. However, I reported here that those who spent most time on social media were also most social in person – also a surprise. Whether this translates over to gaming, I don’t know, but good to know at least.

But for now, we know that gaming shouldn’t be a worry for parents or others in society, but we do need to be able to identify and support those who are prone to maladaptive behaviours – be that in gaming, or other areas.

Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

Andy is author of leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker, speaking on the brain and human behaviour.

Andy is also a masters athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

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References

Simona Skripkauskaite et al
Time Spent Gaming, Device Type, Addiction Scores, and Well-being of Adolescent English Gamers in the 2021 OxWell Survey: Latent Profile Analysis”
JMIR Pediatrics and Parenting, 18.11.2022
https://pediatrics.jmir.org/2022/4/e41480/

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Why Children Learn More Quickly Than Adults

Why Children Learn More Quickly Than Adults

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Daily brief research updates from the cognitive sciences

learning brain

We kind of all know that children learn more quickly. Sure, as adults have more knowledge but when it comes to grasping new information and remembering things kids have the upper hand, Sometimes by a long way.

It’s also one of those things which we just seem to accept – consider when I saw the headline to this latest research on learning – I thought, but of course kids learn quicker. Yet this doesn’t help us really explain why. Our brains are made of the same material and the same chemicals so why should those little whippersnappers learn quicker than us old fogies – not fair!

The answer it seems lies in an underrated neurotransmitter known as GABA. This is actually a key transmitter in the brain but rarely gets much popular exposure in contrast to other sexier transmitters such as dopamine and oxytocin.

So, what is happening with GABA and children’s brains?

In a recently published study by Frank et al. they measure GABA before during and after learning in children and adults on a visual learning exercise using refined imaging techniques.

They saw that in children GABA levels were raised during and importantly after the stimulus. And this translates into more effective learning, stabilising the trace in the brain into a memory.

GABA is the brain primary inhibitory transmitter. The brain has transmitters that stimulate and activate neurons, excitatory transmitters, these are normally the famous ones. But it also needs to inhibit and slow down activation and that is the role of GABA. We know that this is important, but this shows that it doesn’t just inhibit transmission but enables stabilisation of input and therefore also of increased learning.

Adults in contrast can pull on other resources to learn, such as existing knowledge and to put learning better into context – but simply building memories and getting new stuff into the brain is done better by kids.

And sorry oldies, I don’t know how you can activate your GABA more when learning!

Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

Andy is author of leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker, speaking on the brain and human behaviour.

Andy is also a masters athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

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References

Sebastian M. Frank, Markus Becker, Andrea Qi, Patricia Geiger, Ulrike I. Frank, Luke A. Rosedahl, Wilhelm M. Malloni, Yuka Sasaki, Mark W. Greenlee, Takeo Watanabe.
Efficient learning in children with rapid GABA boosting during and after training.
Current Biology, 2022
DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.10.021

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Right, so artificial networks also need sleep!

Right, so artificial networks also need sleep!

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Daily brief research updates from the cognitive sciences


Ishould say that it is artificial neural networks that seem to need sleep, or a rest. But isn’t one point of an artificial network that that of it not needing sleep, or rest?

For those of you who don’t know, artificial neural networks are networks built by engineers in the computing space to mimic the brain’s cells and therefore hope to get better computing, or different, computing outcomes. Therefore, it comes as a real surprise that, apparently, rest improves their performance. It comes as a real surprise because these are not biological entities, there are numerous reason we need rest as human beings, as biological beings. One is that there is a slow build-up of toxic material as we function. Another is that there is also constant genetic damage that needs to be repaired.

So why do these networks need rest? First let’s understand what happens. These networks are designed to mimic neuronal functions – so far so good – and they have become really good at some things such as computational speed. But there is something called catastrophic forgetting – no, not like when we stand in the supermarket and can’t for the life remember what we wanted. This is when these networks learn sequentially, one task after another, new information can then overwrite old information and it is gone, “forgotten”.

Golden et al. at the University of California have now reported that when these artificial networks are trained on new tasks but with periods off-line mimicking sleep, they could replay old memories but without using old training data. This is due to the patterns that are replicated during our biological sleep. In our sleep the synapses, connections that is, between neurons are strengthened. You brain essentially replays your day’s input and strengthens memories during sleep (that’s one of many reasons sleep is so important). When this process was replicated it mitigated this catastrophic forgetting.

So, fascinating it is that we are building artificial neural networks that replicate the brain’s processes for better computational processing power but also fascinating that these artificial networks also improve performance with sleep.

This goes to show that good old biology, and evolution, seems to have got it right. And for us also another reminder of the importance of getting a good night’s sleep.

Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

Andy is author of leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker, speaking on the brain and human behaviour.

Andy is also a masters athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

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References

Ryan Golden, Jean Erik Delanois, Pavel Sanda, Maxim Bazhenov. 
Sleep prevents catastrophic forgetting in spiking neural networks by forming a joint synaptic weight representation.
 PLOS Computational Biology, 2022; 18 (11): e1010628
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1010628

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