Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A novel look at how stories may change the brain

“We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically," says neuroscientist Gregory Berns.

By Carol Clark

Many people can recall reading at least one cherished story that they say changed their life. Now researchers at Emory University have detected what may be biological traces related to this feeling: Actual changes in the brain that linger, at least for a few days, after reading a novel.

Their findings, that reading a novel may cause changes in resting-state connectivity of the brain that persist, were published by the journal Brain Connectivity.

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

His co-authors included Kristina Blaine and Brandon Pye from the Center for Neuropolicy, and Michael Prietula, professor of information systems and operations management at Emory’s Goizueta Business School.

Neurobiological research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has begun to identify brain networks associated with reading stories. Most previous studies have focused on the cognitive processes involved in short stories, while subjects are actually reading them as they are in the fMRI scanner.

The Emory study focused on the lingering neural effects of reading a narrative. Twenty-one Emory undergraduates participated in the experiment, which was conducted over 19 consecutive days.

The researchers chose the novel "Pompeii" for the experiment, due to its strong narrative and page-turning plot.

All of the study subjects read the same novel, “Pompeii,” a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris that is based on the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy. “The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano,” Berns says. “He tries to get back to Pompeii in time to save the woman he loves. Meanwhile, the volcano continues to bubble and nobody in the city recognizes the signs.”

The researchers chose the book due to its page-turning plot. “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way,” Berns says. “It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”

For the first five days, the participants came in each morning for a base-line fMRI scan of their brains in a resting state. Then they were given nine sections of the novel, about 30 pages each, over a nine-day period. They were asked to read the assigned section in the evening, and come in the following morning. After taking a quiz to ensure they had finished the assigned reading, the participants underwent an fMRI scan of their brain in a non-reading, resting state. After completing all nine sections of the novel, the participants returned for five more mornings to undergo additional scans in a resting state.

The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments. “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

Read any mind-altering books lately? Writer Joyce Carol Oates once cited "Alice in Wonderland" as a big influence on her imaginative life.

Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns says. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

The neural changes were not just immediate reactions, Berns says, since they persisted the morning after the readings, and for the five days after the participants completed the novel.

“It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last,” Berns says. “But the fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

Credits: Top image by iStockphoto.com. Middle and bottom photos by Carol Clark.

Metaphors activate sensory areas of brain
Novelists, neuroscientists trade mental notes

Monday, December 16, 2013

From novels to neuroscience, a meeting of minds

“Images, Metaphors and the Brain” is the name of one of the many graduate seminars inspired and supported by the Emory Center for Mind, Brain and Culture (CMBC). The seminar was co-taught by Laura Otis, a professor of English who has studied neuroscience, and Krish Sathian, a neurologist who loves literature and the humanities.

The course culminated in a day-long symposium, Metaphors and the Mind, that paired top writers, including Salman Rushdie, with leading neuroscientists, “to talk about the possibilities of language and creativity together,” Otis says.

The CMBC, she adds, is sparking “all kinds of friendships and teaching exchanges between departments that would otherwise be far apart.”

Novelists, neuroscientists trade mental notes
Metaphors activate sensory areas of the brain

Sunday, December 15, 2013

EPA clean air proposal 'not a war on coal'

Coal-burning plants in the United States emit three percent of the entire world’s greenhouse gases, says Bill Buzbee, an environmental law expert at Emory Law.

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed clean-air rules for how new power plants should be regulated. The proposed rules are the most recent, major step after the Supreme Court confirmed that the EPA has the power to regulate greenhouse gases.

“This is not a war on coal. This is the United States taking steps to address climate change, for which the science continues to be overwhelming,” Buzbee says.

“This does matter a lot to the world,” he adds. “If the United States does, in fact, require coal plants to do better, and it’s shown to be viable, probably pressure will be brought to bear around the world for other coal-burning countries to think about doing better as well.”

The growing role of farming and nitrous oxide in climate change
Putting people into the climate change picture

A student movement for health insurance outreach

RING executive board (from left to right): Anna Bausum, Dennis Valerstain, Rana Alsiro, Sehe Han, Nick Goodwin, Riana Kahlon, Dana Sand and Ijeoma Okafor. Photo by Stephanie Chan.

By Kimber Williams, Emory Report

The opening day of enrollment for the nation's new Affordable Care Act (ACA) was more harried than usual for Emory senior Nick Goodwin, who faced a personal checklist that seemed daunting, even to him:

Meet with Grady Memorial Hospital officials to discuss ACA launch logistics. Run back to campus for an exam in "Opium to Obamacare" anthropology class. Swing by apartment, change clothes. Race to Norcross to join regional U.S. Health and Human Services reps at a community forum to field questions about the new ACA.

What Goodwin didn't anticipate was the simultaneous launch of a government shutdown that day as Congress argued over appropriations, effectively furloughing some 800,000 federal employees. Instead of a supporting role, Goodwin was suddenly part of the forum's main event, helping lead the discussion on looming health insurance changes.

And so he did, fielding complicated questions from veterans and stay-at-home parents and full-time workers — the insured, the uninsured and the underinsured.

From the man who paid $500-a-month insurance premiums through his employer, yet still had no coverage for his children, to families denied insurance due to pre-existing diseases, that day, Goodwin stood and answered questions until the crowd was satisfied.

For Goodwin, it was a defining moment — the culmination of a journey kick-started by his own curiosity, a desire to reduce economic disparities among those seeking health care, and the need to make a difference.

But what began as a simple idea snowballed, remarkably, into something much bigger, resulting in the creation of RING (Resource and Insurance Navigator Group), a new organization founded by Goodwin and a team of Emory students to train college-aged volunteers in health care outreach that will include educating the public about new insurance options under the ACA. The goal: Create RING chapters on university campuses throughout Georgia, building a network of young advocates who can help link consumers with information about much-needed basic services — helping shape the changing face of health care, one unexpected step at a time.

Read the full story in Emory Report.

New human health major aims at culture change

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Support mothers to curb the global rise in chronic diseases

By Carol Clark

After decades of studies showing that the chances of a person having a chronic disease in later life can be determined when they are in the womb, it is time to take stronger action, say researchers from Emory University and the University of Southampton in the current issue of Nature.

Rather than primarily focusing on people’s genes, or on their diets and lifestyles in adulthood, “we need a developmental approach to public health” that better supports girls and young women, they write.

The lead author of the commentary article is the late David Barker. He was a visiting professor at Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health, a clinical epidemiologist at the University of Southampton in the UK, and a professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University.

Barker, who co-taught undergraduate courses at Emory, including one on predicting lifespan health, and served as an adviser to graduate students, was widely considered to be one of the most important clinical epidemiologists of our time. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage last August at 75, after finishing the first draft of the Nature commentary. The article summarizes his life’s work, while also calling for action.

Barker essentially “invented” a new field of medicine, now known as Development Origins of Health and Disease, says Michelle Lampl, a co-author of the Nature article and director of Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health.

“He’s responsible for a paradigm shift in medicine through his focus on the science of health in the womb and the early ages,” says Lampl, an anthropologist who focuses on human growth. “The idea that your first cell has a big influence on your later life sounds unbelievable, and he was criticized horribly when he came up with ‘the Barker hypothesis.’ But he opened the door and profoundly changed the way that we think about health and disease.”

The Nature article cites some staggering statistics: Globally, the prevalence of adult-onset diabetes is expected to double by 2030 and cardiovascular disease is expected to rise by about 35 percent.

“More than 30 years of epidemiological studies using data from several hundred thousand people around the world point to factors during prenatal and early childhood development that contribute to these statistics,” the researchers write.

The biology underlying the developmental origins of health and disease has begun to be better understood, and evidence suggests that women need to start eating healthily well before they become pregnant. Women who are obese, and those whose stores of nutrients mean the supply to their growing fetus is less than optimal, risk having babies with a greater likelihood of suffering diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease or cancer in later life.

Watch a video of David Barker speaking to an Emory human health class last spring:

“People working in public health must support girls and young women with low incomes to feel more in control of their lives and so better able to prioritize healthy eating,” the researchers write. “At the same time, better access to quality food is necessary so that it is easier for people to make better choices. This would improve others’ nutrition and thereby the health of future generations.”

The researchers call for personal empowerment activities accompanied by environmental changes that make it easier for women to make better food choices.

They write: “So far, public health advocates have called for regulation and legislation as a means to improve diets — an increased tax on fatty and sugary foods, for instance. Yet this is unlikely to happen because raising the tax on soft drinks, say, is not in the interests of industry, or of politicians, who are sensitive to industry pressures and to a public who want cheap soft drinks.

“Instead of wagging fingers, we need to generate consensus. Empowering consumers to call for better access to better food will put pressure on both politicians to respond to voters, and on the food industry to please their customers.”

Additional co-authors on the paper are psychologist Mary Barker and developmental biologist Tom Fleming, both from the University of Southhampton.

Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health was founded on Barker’s philosophy of predicting and supporting health, instead of just treating disease, Lampl says. “We will continue to build on this legacy, with our focus on empowering young people to make better personal health choices and preparing them to make the next generation of real breakthroughs in human health.”

Photos by iStockphoto.com.

New human health major aims at culture change
Putting teeth into the Barker hypothesis

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Multi-dog study points to canine brain's reward center

 Tigger, a Boston terrier that was one of 13 dogs in the study.

By Carol Clark

After capturing the first brain images of two alert, unrestrained dogs last year, researchers at Emory University have confirmed their methods and results by replicating them in an experiment involving 13 dogs.

The research, published by the Public Library of Science One (PLOS One), showed that most of the dogs had a positive response in the caudate region of the brain when given a hand signal indicating they would receive a food treat, as compared to a different hand signal for “no treat.”

“Our experiment last year was really a proof of concept, demonstrating that dogs could be trained to undergo successful functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI),” says the lead researcher Gregory Berns, director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy. “Now we’ve shown that the initial study wasn’t a fluke: Canine fMRI is reliable and can be done with minimal stress to the dogs. We have laid the foundation for exploring the neural biology and cognitive processes of man’s best, and oldest, friend.”

Co-authors of the paper include Andrew Brooks, a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Neuropolicy, and Mark Spivak, a dog trainer and the owner of Comprehensive Pet Therapy.

Both the initial experiment and the more recent one involved training the dogs to acclimatize to an fMRI machine. The task requires dogs to cooperatively enter the small enclosure of the fMRI scanner and remain completely motionless despite the noise and vibration of the machine.

Only those dogs that willingly cooperated were involved in the experiments. The canine subjects were given harmless fMRI brain scans while they watched a human giving hand signals that the dogs had been trained to understand. One signal indicated that the dog would receive a hot dog for a treat. The other hand signal meant that the dog would not receive a hot dog.

Pearl, a golden retriever that was in the recent study, was trained as a companion/assistance dog and is now registered as a therapy dog.

The most recent experiment involved the original two dogs, plus 11 additional ones, of varying breeds. Eight out of the 13 showed the positive caudate response for the hand signal indicating they were going to receive a hot dog.

The caudate sits above the brain stem in mammals and has the highest concentration of dopamine receptors, which are implicated in motivation and pleasure, among other neurological processes.

“We know that in humans, the caudate region is associated with decision-making, motivation and processing emotions,” Berns says.

As a point of reference, the researchers compared the results to a similar experiment Berns had led 10 years previously involving humans, in which the subjects pressed a button when a light appeared, to get a squirt of fruit juice.

Eleven of 17 humans involved in that experiment showed a positive response in the caudate region that was similar to the positive response of the dogs. “Our findings suggest that the caudate region of the canine brain behaves similarly to the caudate of the human brain, under similar circumstances,” Berns says.

Six of the dogs involved in the experiment had been specially bred and trained to assist disabled people as companion animals, and two of the dogs (including one of the service dogs) had worked as therapy dogs, used to help alleviate stress in people in hospitals or nursing homes. All of the service/therapy dogs showed a greater level of positive caudate activation for the hot dog signal, compared to the other dogs.

“We don’t know if the service dogs and therapy dogs showed this difference because of genetics, or because of the environment in which they were raised, but we hope to find out in future experiments,” Berns says. “This may be the first hint of how the brains of dogs with different temperaments and personalities differ.”

He adds: “I don’t think it was because they liked hot dogs more. I saw no evidence of that. None of the dogs turned down the hot dogs.”

One limitation of the experiments is the small number of subjects and the selectivity of the dogs involved, since only certain dogs can be trained to do the experiments, Berns says.

 Caylin, a border collie that was one of the study subjects.

“We’re expanding our cohort to include more dogs and more breeds,” Berns says. “As the dogs get more accustomed to the process, we can conduct more complicated experiments.”

Plans call for comparing how the canine brain responds to hand signals coming from the dog’s owner, a stranger and a computer. Another experiment already under way is looking at the neural response of dogs when they are exposed to scents of people and other dogs from their households, compared to the scents of unfamiliar people and dogs.

“Ultimately, our goal is to map out canine cognitive processes,” says Berns, who recently published a book entitled “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain.”

Even in an increasingly technical era, the role of dogs has not diminished, Berns says. In addition to being popular pets, he notes that dogs are important in the U.S. military, in search-and-rescue missions, as assistants for the disabled and as therapeutic stress relievers for hospital patients and others.

“Dogs have been a part of human society for longer than any other animal,” Berns says. He cites a genetic analysis recently published in Science suggesting that the domestication of dogs goes back 18,000 to 32,000 years, preceding the development of agriculture some 10,000 years ago.

“Most neuroscience studies on animals are conducted to serve as models for human disease and brain functions,” Berns says. “We’re not studying canine cognition to serve as a model for humans, but what we learn about the dog brain may also help us understand more about how our own brains evolved.”

What is your dog thinking? Brain scans unleash canine secrets
Neuroscientist explores how dogs love us

Monday, December 2, 2013

What sea squirts can teach us about brains

Bluebell tunicates are bottle-shaped sea squirts. Photo by Nick Hobgood/Wikipedia Commons.

John Onians, a professor emeritus of art studies from the University of East Anglia in England, recently spoke at Emory about the links between neuroscience and art history. His eclectic talk also included a reference to sea squirts, which was highlighted in "ThoughtWork," the newsletter of the Academic Exchange:

"Why do we have a brain? I didn't know this previously: The reason we have a brain is because like all other organisms from amoebas to elephants, we need to move in order to reproduce and get food. A plant can reproduce and get food without moving. That's why plants don't have brains. This is illustrated by this marvelous creature the sea squirt. The sea squirt swims around the ocean until it's found a place where it can settle, and then when it settles it attaches itself and then it proceeds to consume its own brain because it no longer needs it, which is often unflatteringly compared to a professor that gets tenure. It is important to remember that the brain is there to help us move in order to get things which are of vital importance to us. The brain isn't primarily consumed with knowledge, the sort of things we were taught about. That was just an idea that the Greeks had because it was a good way of getting young men to forget their emotions. But really everything we do is driven by our emotional needs."

Click here to keep track of more interesting talks sponsored by the Center for Mind, Brain and Culture.