From the Archives: The Promise of Ketamine

promiseofketamine.jpgThis month, the FDA approved the use of esketamine, a nasal spray based on the old anesthetic and once-popular club drug ketamine, to treat people with severe depression that has not responded to other treatments. It’s costly and entails visiting the doctor for four hours a week for four weeks, but it’s the first treatment in decades that works in a new way in the brain. That means it might reach the large number of people with depression who are not helped by drugs that target other brain functions.

Last March, Ronald S. Duman, Ph.D., wrote for Cerebrum on “The Dazzling Promise of Ketamine,” exploring how the drug was validated as an antidepressant, how it works, and what it could mean for development of other drugs: Continue reading

A Wild and Brainy Night at the Museum

Last Thursday, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City hosted “Neuroscience Night: Wild, Wild Brains” during Brain Awareness Week in the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins. The night was filled with interactive games and flash lectures (i.e., a series of talks no more than 30 minutes long) that showcased how our human brains compare to those of our animal counterparts, both present day and extinct.

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A packed lecture room: in the back of the Hall were lectures from three experts each focused on the study of animal brain evolution and behavior. The talks spanned topics such as bird brains, olfactory evolution in primates, and elephant behavior and cognition.

Amy Balanoff, Ph.D., who was one of the night’s guest speakers, presented her own research on the evolutionary history of the avian (or, bird) brain. She and her colleagues use endocasts to study the brains of non-avian dinosaurs and Archaeopteryx (the first known transition between dinosaurs and flying birds) and then compare those casts to the brains of modern-day birds. An endocast is a casting of a hollow space—in this case, a fossilized cranial bone, which Balanoff created using CT imaging. Continue reading

The Power to Overcome Challenges

We all experience different forms of adversity in our lives, some more severe than others. But why do some people seem to crumble when faced with those challenges, while others remain optimistic and persevere? Do genetics play a role? Scientists are looking at the biological underpinnings of resilience for answers.

Heather Berlin- Edited Inset

Heather Berlin, Ph.D.

Diving into this subject, the Rubin Museum of Art welcomed three experts to the stage for the latest 2019 Brainwave program, “The Power to Overcome Challenges.” Heather Berlin, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist who spoke at the Rubin for a past Brainwave event and worked with her husband on a theatrical show about consciousness, sat between Sharlee Jeter, president of the Turn 2 Foundation, which was founded by her brother, baseball legend Derek Jeter, and Sampson Davis, M.D., an emergency room physician and co-founder of the Three Doctors Foundation. Together, Sampson and Jeter co-authored a book all about “the stuff”—two words that came up often as the group discussed trauma and resilience throughout the evening. Continue reading

The Skinny on Epilepsy

Although a common brain disorder that affects almost four million people nationwide, many people know little about epilepsy. Stephanie Rogers, a doctoral candidate at New York University (NYU), attempted to demystify the disorder with a thorough overview of “The Science of Epilepsy: What Is It and How Can We Understand It?” at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute during Brain Awareness Week.

Rogers explained epilepsy with a metaphor: Imagine neurons in the brain are people in a public space. Some of the people (neurons in a certain network) are having a conversation and talking directly to one another while others are overheard by the other people (neurons) in the room. During a seizure, all the people become distracted and stop their normal conversation and, in unison, chant a certain message—like fans at a sports game. Seizures activity is neurons joining together in a chant in the brain, and epilepsy is a neurological disorder caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain.

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Parkinson’s Disease on the Mind

People often associate tremor with Parkinson’s disease (PD), a progressive neurodegenerative disorder originally named “shaking palsy,” but did you know that one-quarter to one-third of patients don’t exhibit this symptom? At Wednesday night’s event for Brain Awareness Week, “On the Mind: Parkinson’s, Movement, and Dance,” we heard from top NYU doctors about symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment, but also from a PD patient on his experience with disease and how dance helped him come to terms with his diagnosis.

There are four cardinal clinical features of PD: rest tremor, slowness, stiffness in muscles, and balance problems, said Andrew Feigin, M.D., director of the Fresco Institute at NYU Langone Health. Not everyone gets all four, he said, but people with Parkinsonism have two or more, and are often diagnosed with PD. Because it is a progressive disease, these symptoms can lead to other troubles, including quiet or slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, and shuffling gait, as well as non-motor features such as depression, impulse control, and sleep disturbances.

Actor Michael J. Fox and the late boxer Muhammad Ali, both diagnosed with PD, dramatically increased public awareness of the disease in the past few decades, but it was first discovered in the early 1800s by James Parkinson. Around 1 million people in the U.S. and 6 million people worldwide have PD.

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