The Anxious Brain

“Since the 1960s, billions of dollars and probably millions of animals have gone into the search for new and better anti-anxiety medications,” said researcher Joseph LeDoux at an event this week on anxiety at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But drug makers, who have spent years targeting points along a brain pathway described as the “fear circuit” in animals, haven’t had the success they sought; they have stopped funding many studies. Why?

LeDoux, a Dana Alliance member at New York University who has studied this circuit for the past three decades, argues that the term we use may have blinded us to what the circuit actually does. Instead of labeling it with a human feeling, it would better to call it an unconscious “defensive survival circuit.” Other inputs lead to the conscious feelings of fear and anxiety. For example, while hiking, we have already recoiled from the snake on the trail before our conscious minds have hit the danger signal. The two things happen so fast, though, it’s easy to think the feeling led to the action—but we’re committing the first sin of science: confusing correlation and causation, LeDoux said.


From left: moderator Mark Frankel, Joseph LeDoux, and Daniel Pine field questions from the audience.

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

Guest blog by Kayt Sukel


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.


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


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

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