What We Can Learn from the Minds of Olympic Athletes: Q&A with John Krakauer, M.D.

Guest blog by Kayt Sukel

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The famed Olympic torch is now burning strong in Rio de Janeiro. The 2016 Summer Olympics are under way, and the best athletes in the world have come to represent their respective countries and compete for the gold. Time and time again, sports commentators regale us with stories about the necessity of a good “mental” game to find success in high profile events like the Olympics–and the scientific research, though limited, appears to back that view [See our paper: “Mental Preparation of High-Level Athletes”]. But what is it specifically about the brains of these athletes that allows them to reach these levels? John Krakauer, M.D., a neurologist at the Johns Hopkins University who studies human sensorimotor learning and performance, speaks with us about what we can learn from the minds of Olympic athletes, whether super athletes should be considered geniuses, and how those findings may one day inform rehabilitation after stroke or brain injury.

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Procrastination: An Emotion-Focused Coping Strategy

“I’m very good at procrastination,” declared Courtney Act at Monday night’s Brainwave event on procrastination. Act, a semi-finalist on Australian Idol in 2003 and a top three finalist on RuPaul’s Drag Race season 6 (the best season!), joined psychiatrist Tim Pychyl on stage at New York’s Rubin Museum to discuss why we procrastinate and tools to help overcome it.

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Courtney Act and Tim Pychyl discuss procrastination at Brainwave’s final event of the year. Photo credit: Andrew Kist

The topic, suggested by Act, is tied to the Brainwave theme of emotion, and Pychyl was quick to congratulate her on recognizing that procrastination is indeed tied to emotion–it is not just a time-management issue or a product of laziness. Procrastination, he said, is an “emotion-focused coping strategy” that we use for short-term gratification.

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Unraveling Individual Variability in Hormonal Mood Swings

Guest post by Brenda Patoine

The stereotype of women’s “inexplicable” mood swings has long provided fodder for comics and cartoonists, but for scientists trying to understand the underlying biology, hormonal depression is no joke.

Endocrine-related affective mood disorders show up in different forms in different phases of life, from premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) during otherwise normal menstrual cycling, to post-partum depression following childbirth, to mood disruptions around and after menopause. Yet these disorders don’t affect all women, and in fact, most women do not experience them.

“How is it that some women experience a change in affective state as a result of hormones whereas a majority of women do not?” Peter Schmidt, M.D. asked in a July 8 webinar sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). “That really is the million-dollar question.”

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Placebos and Positive Effects in Cognitive Training Studies

Guest Post by Kayt Sukel

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There are few topics in the neuroscience world that can spark instant debate—but “brain games,” or computer programs or training products that promise to help improve cognitive skills like memory and attention, is definitely one of them. Over the past two years:

It’s likely this debate will continue for some time, especially now that a new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), has demonstrated a strong placebo effect after a brief cognitive training program. Continue reading

Community-Driven Initiatives Aim to Stem Suicides Among Arctic Peoples

Guest Post by Brenda Patoine

Image courtesy of Stacy Rasmus

Image courtesy of Stacy Rasmus [click to see bigger]

In some of the most remote areas of Alaska, the suicide rate is seven times the national average, soaring to almost 18 times the U.S. average among Alaskan Native youth, where the suicide rate is 124 per 100,000 people aged 15-24, compared with 7 per 100,000 for that age group in the U.S. overall.

While it is not unusual for rural communities where people live in relative isolation to have higher-than-average rates of substance abuse, depression, and suicide, remote Arctic villages may represent a worst-case scenario. Far removed from population centers, these villages are located in some of the harshest environments in North America, are typically inaccessible by highways, and the closest hospitals are a plane ride away. Medical care is limited and mental health resources are typically nonexistent.

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