Two Addiction Stories at the Rubin

Addiction, at its most ravenous, wreaks devastation in the brain when searching for dopamine, a chemical that plays a role in reward-motivated behavior.  For some, this means expulsion from several schools, unraveling relationships with family and friends, and struggling amidst homelessness. After ten years of insatiably chasing the next high, this series of events was the reality for a woman just beginning treatment for a substance abuse problem that began when she was a 13-year-old. In rehab, the revelation that addiction is a disease compelled her to consider the existence of a cure—one merely needed to search for it. This search proved to be the fuel in her becoming a behavioral neuroscientist studying the root causes of drug addiction.

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Judith Grisel, Ph.D.

The woman, now an accomplished scientist, is Judith Grisel, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Bucknell University and author of a new book, Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction (Doubleday, 2019). Grisel shared her compelling story, that of her 25 years of research and as a current recovering addict, was part of the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave: Power series, a program featuring discussions between “neuroscientists and notable personalities.”

At “The Power of Addiction,” Grisel spoke candidly with actor Zachary Quinto, known for his role as Spock in the reboot of the Star Trek franchise and more recently on Broadway as Harold in Boys in the Band. The duo shared intimate details of their embroilments with addiction (Quinto is also a recovering addict) and what the healing process entailed for them. Continue reading

Two Speakers Examine Mental Health

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Flying University is a speakeasy-style lecture series featuring storytellers, experts, professors, and comedians shining a light on ideas, people, science, and moments in history that have been erased or overlooked. On Tuesday night, the series presented “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” an intimate look at the people and mechanisms behind mental health diagnoses.

The program was held in conjunction with Brain Awareness Week at Caveat in Manhattan.  Suzanne Garrison, a licensed therapist and art therapist, explained how she evaluates patients, one of whom was the host, Chinisha S. The therapist explained that she analyzes a patient to find the healthy, well-functioning part of that person. She then nurtures that part, which leads to a better understanding of their repressed feelings and motivations. Garrison compared the mind to an iceberg: the small part above water is the part of our consciousness, but the larger chunk under water is the part of our subconscious. But the latter is what drives the whole iceberg. Like the two parts of the iceberg, her goal is to make the unconscious conscious and to help clients better know their feelings and free themselves from feelings of shame or guilt. 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.

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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

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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