Dana newsletter: January

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deutch-rop-jan2017-80pFinding Clues to Schizophrenia Outside Neurons

by Ariel Y. Deutch, Ph.D.

The recent discovery of key roles of non-neuronal cells such as microglia in the development of schizophrenia opens the door to the development of new types of therapies for an illness for which we need far better treatments. One in our series of scientists’ Reports on Progress.

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Brain Awareness Week 2013 Recap

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Last week was Brain Awareness Week (BAW), and there was a lot to absorb. Five hundred and twenty eight registered partners held a total of 942 events in 58 countries and 42 U.S. states. Six out of seven continents were represented in this mix, as seen in our Across the Continents blog posts.

To spotlight the great work and the diversity of our BAW partners, we posted a new partner interview each weekday to our homepage. These Q&As offer a lot of practical advice, useful to current partners and to those planning to participate next year. Among the things we learned this year were the value of volunteers and how to recruit them; why middle school students are an important demographic to target during the week, and what types of activities they enjoy; and that how you present is just as important as what you present, particularly when your event is child-focused.

Perhaps BAW future partners, high school seniors Charltien Long and Jordan Meltzer were awarded first and second-place for the Dana Design a Brain Experiment competition. Long proposed to test the effectiveness of acteylcholinesterase inhibitors in treating hallucinations in schizophrenia on both a clinical and neurobiological level. Meltzer proposed to map the development of myelin-generating neural progenitor cells. Really impressive work from both students. 

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The Neurological Excuse for Your Teen’s Idiotic Decisions

The word teenager is nearly synonymous with the words unstable, reckless and headache. Whether a parent’s teenage son is being dropped off by a squad car at 4 a.m. or a teacher’s student enters the classroom wearing a freshly dyed green mohawk and a nose ring, adults dealing with teenagers are continually baffled and often infuriated by the recklessness and stupidity of teen behavior. However, as David Dobbs points out in his article “Beautiful Teenage Brains” in the Oct. 2011 National Geographic, behavior that parents find most vexing in their teens are often those that are most important to their success later on as adults.

Scientists once believed the brain stopped developing at a young age, but with the development of brain scans, we now know that it continues to develop throughout adolescence and beyond. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) completed a study of the adolescent brain in the 1990s showing that between the ages of 12 and 25 human brains go through what Dobbs calls “extensive remodeling, resembling a network wiring upgrade.” During the teen years, myelin (the white, fatty matter that insulates axons) thickens, dendrites expand, and busy synapses grow richer and stronger while idle ones wane away. These changes combined with the thinning of the brain’s cortex—where most conscious thought is done—lead to a far more efficient brain.

Dobbs also describes how the strengthening links between the hippocampus (needed for memory) and, frontal areas (needed for forming goals and plans) begin to improve adolescents’ ability to integrate their experiences with their decision-making. With all these neurological improvements, one wonders why teenagers often make bad decisions. Dobbs notes that just as the changing body of a teenager produces a stumbling physical awkwardness, their changing brain creates a neural awkwardness and, initially, as he puts it, “it’s hard to get all those new cogs to mesh.”       

Neural awkwardness alone cannot explain why your rebellious 14-year-old has started hanging out with the wrong crowd. Teenagers are notoriously hormonal, and according to Dobbs, changes in the brain’s hormone receptors also influence the reckless behavior of adolescence by strongly enforcing social rewards. During the teen years, the brain becomes extremely sensitive to dopamine and oxytocin, producing a brain that is highly influenced by social interactions. Dobbs notes that scans of the teen brain indicate that it reacts to social inclusion and exclusion the same way it does with threats to physical well-being and food supply.   

Dobbs points to a study by developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg illustrating adolescent susceptibility to social rewards and its effect on their behavior. Steinberg created a video game where participants had to drive across town as fast as possible. Game players often encountered yellow lights and had to judge whether to go through them or wait; they lost points if the light turned red as they were going through the intersection. When by themselves, teenagers had nearly identical results as adult players; however, when taking the test accompanied by other teenagers, teens went through twice as many red lights. Steinberg argues that teens have the ability to accurately judge risks, but “they gave more weight to the [social] payoff” of impressing their friends.

But what is the human payoff in running a red light with your friends in the back seat? Why haven’t we evolved to eliminate the impulsive and often destructive nature of this stage of development? In fact, Dobbs argues, evolution has enforced these traits in teenagers. He argues that a teen’s willingness to take risks increases the probability of more and better social connections, which has been shown to increase happiness and success in the long run. Humans are social creatures and teenagers are especially social humans. While risk-taking may lead teens down roads that parents would rather they avoid, it will also encourage them go out and explore the world beyond the comfort and security of their home. Exploration and risk-taking are essential to the development of a successful adult.

Dobbs suggests that parents continue to guide their teens but do so while giving them the independence they need to develop. As for me, I suggest parents read and learn from this article, but keep it hidden from their kids. Providing your kid with a legitimate scientific explanation for their misbehavior would give them a stronger defense in your next battle, and strengthen the infamous “but everyone else was doing it” explanation. I know if I had this argument when I was sixteen, it would’ve been among my arsenal of excuses for my own idiotic behavior:

“Mom, I’m sorry! But it’s not my fault I hung out with my friends instead of studying for my chemistry test; I am neurologically programmed to make decisions based on social rewards rather than consequences!”

–Simon Fischweicher

Source: Dobbs, David, (2011). Beautiful Teenage Brains. National Geographic, 220(4), 36-59.  

 

Lady Gaga not only one misinterpreting ideal “poker face”

I recently spent a night in Atlantic City with some friends to celebrate my birthday. As far as I knew, my brain was simply trying to decide between red or black, hit or stay, keep playing or walk away. Little did I know this was only a fraction of the activity going on in my head.

Two recent studies have delved into the psychology of gambling. The results of one of the studies are in line with my casino visits. The other, however, clashes a bit with my experience. I’ll start with the study that I found to be more congruent with my opinions.

Spanish psychologist Josep Marco-Pallares paired partners to play a very simple computer gambling game. Only one participant was doing the actual wagering, while the other either (1) had money on the same outcome as the gambler, (2) had money on the opposite outcome, or (3) was a neutral observer.

As expected, the brain responses of the active gamblers were distinct for wins and losses. The researchers were interested in the partner’s brain activity, though, and in the first two scenarios those responses were as expected: in the first, it mirrored the gambler’s; in the second, it was the opposite.

However, even when the gambling partner had no stake in the outcome, the brain responses of the two were the same when the gambler lost money. In other words, the observer reacted as if he/she had lost money as well. Interestingly, this similarity of responses was not evident when the gambler won.

I have certainly noticed this behavior in the casino, even if I could only go by outward reactions as opposed to brain scans. Last weekend, my friends and I huddled around another friend who was playing blackjack. I was certainly happy when he won, and congratulated him for a good hand. But I didn’t truly feel all that happy for him. I guess I was just happy he didn’t lose.

When he lost a hand, though—which, unfortunately, happened far more frequently—my empathy was definitely authentic. In fact, at times it seemed like I was more upset than he was over a losing hand (perhaps because I’m a more conservative gambler than he is).

Later in the night we played Pai Gow poker, and the results of Marco-Pallares’ study were happening before my eyes. With just one seat open at the table, I was the only one who sat down. However, two of my friends and I pooled our money to buy some chips. When my hand won, we split the profits three ways. Likewise, we all took a financial hit when we lost. It was clear we were all experiencing the same emotions—the joys of winning and the devastation of defeat.

After about an hour of playing, our other two friends joined us at the table. They stood with the two friends who were betting with me, but they simply observed. When I revealed a weak hand, all four shook their heads in disappointment. But when I had a monster hand, only my two fellow bettors seemed to show excitement.

The second study, conducted by Wellesley College psychologist Erik Schlicht, deals with how our opponents’ facial expressions influence the way we bet in poker. Participants were pitted against a computer opponent displaying a variety of facial expressions (as represented on the screen by a photo of a human). By giving participants similar hands and making them wager the same amount, researchers were able to isolate distinct facial expressions to record their effect.

They discovered that a trustworthy face gave players the most difficulties. When facing a computer opponent with such an honest countenance, players made more mistakes and were more likely to fold (the thought being, if someone looks trustworthy and bets, that person must have a good hand). The neutral “poker face,” the researchers found, did not make much of a difference.

Although poker was at the heart of the study, the implications don’t apply to actual poker. In the study’s FAQ section written by Schlicht, he admits that this experiment doesn’t carry over to casino poker. “I purposefully ‘strip away’ many of the factors that contribute to decisions in a ‘real’ poker game,” he writes.

At the same time, he also notes that “research is important as it allows for implicit (unconscious) effects to be uncovered, whereas poker [players] who are exclusively relying on experience need to be consciously aware of effects in order [to realize they exist].” This brings up the possibility that I’m simply not always aware of why I’m betting/folding at the poker table.

Either way, both studies have implications beyond a simple wager at a casino, according to the Scientific American article. The first can help learn more about gambling addictions—recovering addicts could relapse simply by observing others play—while the study on faces could aid in our understanding of how we assess certain people/situations, not just at the poker table but in the real world.

–Andrew Kahn

Fans in the booth

Next time you go to the polls, you may want to give some extra thought to why you plan to vote for a particular candidate. That goes double for those of you whose favorite football team won a big game the day before.

Wait, what?

A Stanford University study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that incumbents gain two percentage points when the election is held shortly after a home-team victory. The results of college football games should obviously have nothing to do with political elections, but it’s possible that voters are in a better mood following a win, and therefore more likely to vote for the candidate who’s already in office. The thinking could be: “Things are going well, might as well stick with this person.”

It’s a stretch, I know, but the researchers also found that college basketball games affected presidential approval ratings.

The benefit of knowing that an unrelated event such as a football game can impact important decisions like government elections is that hopefully something can be done about it. Peoples’ moods can’t be controlled, but as the researchers note, “making people more aware of the reasons for their current state of mind reduces the effect that irrelevant events have on their opinions.”

Awareness sounds like a wise goal: It doesn’t make much sense to remove the incumbent just because your team has a bad defense.

–Andrew Kahn

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