Disruption of Circadian Cycles Linked to Weight Gain

Every night during finals week, I studied into the wee hours of the morning and caught only a few hours of sleep. It was exhausting! After finals were over, I felt like a heavy weight had been lifted off my shoulders, but I also felt a few pounds heavier! Sure, late night studying was paired with late dinners and snacks, but the weight came so quickly and was incredibly difficult to lose. What happened? I blamed my overly self-conscious analysis and the high calorie foods. Now, researchers at Vanderbilt suggest another cause: disruption of the sleep-awake cycle!Continue reading

The Road to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Begins at the Intersection of DNA and Childhood Trauma

Shakespeare left out a crucial component for understanding human behavior when he wrote:

it is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.

Our genetic predispositions are only part of the equation when it comes to determining our risk for developing psychiatric disorders. Exposure to stressful environments during critical periods of brain development plays a dramatic role in changing gene function and influencing response to traumatic events in adulthood.Continue reading

The amygdala: a full brain integrator in the face of fear

You are sitting at your computer quietly reading this article when – BOOM! – there is a sharp loud noise behind you! You instinctively stop what you are doing, jump up, and turn to the source of the noise. You freeze where you stand, and your brain quickly assesses the danger of the situation. Although it may seem like a brief moment, your brain is processing a ton of information and trying to decide if you should run away or stay and fight!Continue reading

Superhuman Fearlessness? Think Again.

There are a handful of things that make me really uneasy. The mere thought of getting onto a roller coaster, especially the kind that slowly ascends hundreds of feet before dropping uncontrollably at high speeds, makes me want to let out a childish high-pitched squeal. Even the “cool” elevators that glide on the outside of buildings, which might give you a beautiful panoramic view, only leave me feeling sick.Continue reading

Social Grooming: It’s not just for monkeys and prairie voles!

Have you ever noticed how much time cats spend cleaning themselves? I’m sure they believe that “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” but spending 15% of their day grooming seems a bit excessive! Nevertheless, cats are not the only ones obsessed with hygiene, and many other animals regularly clean their fur, scales, feathers, and skin. For some animals, personal hygiene is not the only goal, and they will spend additional time grooming other members of their group. This is called social grooming and is characteristically seen in primates. The partnerships formed during social grooming are long-lasting, much like the relationship you have with your best friend. It might be unsurprising, then, that social grooming in primates serves primarily a social purpose, allowing animals to bond and build relationships. So what links grooming to social bonding?Continue reading

Not just skin deep: Neurons detect pleasurable touch

What separates us from our physical environment is our skin. From the minute we wake up, we use our somatosensation to start our tangible interaction with the world. Is the water in the shower warm enough? Ouch, that razor blade hurts! These socks are really soft! All of these are sensations attributed to numerous neurons that innervate our skin. While some sensations are quick and call for immediate response (like a pinprick), others are relatively slow and grow on us (like the warmth of water or the pleasure during a massage).Continue reading

Why Prairie Voles Fall in Love: A Chemical Romance

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, the most romantic day of the year. Couples will stroll down the lane, gaze into each other’s eyes, and experience one of the most enigmatic feelings of all: love. But we won’t be Cupid’s only targets; prairie voles will be falling in love, too! This Valentine’s Day eve, let’s discuss what we have learned about this crazy little thing called love from these little cute animals.Continue reading

Love is in the air! Or is that oxytocin?

Have you noticed the chocolates wrapped in bright red paper, teddy bears holding pink hearts in all the stores, and the endless supply of diamond commercials on television? Indeed, this Thursday is Valentine’s Day, which means couples will dote on each other with complete infatuation all day. But what happens after that lovely night out, when the alcohol is gone and the sugar high wears off? Will she notice the hot guys at the beach, and will his eyes wander to the attractive women walking across the street?Continue reading

What do single cell green algae have to do with the state of the art of neuroscience?

Well, a lot actually!  Green algae, or Chlamydomonas reinhardtii to be formal, are the unicellular organisms with a unique trait that has been helping make huge advances in modern neuroscience in only the past eight years.  In their natural environment, these little organisms use an “eye spot” located inside the cell to detect light and to swim toward it (phototaxis).  Researchers have been studying these little critters for years and discovered the algae use a unique photosensitive ion channel that converts a light signal into a voltage change that provides information to the algae.Continue reading

Epilepsy: The Brain’s Cacophony

Imagine sitting in the front row of the Walt Disney Concert Hall on opening night. The LA Philharmonic’s conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, has tirelessly prepared an amazing performance: Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor. The lights dim as Gustavo enters, and the orchestra stands as he steps on the podium. After a short pause, the musicians sit quietly and ready their instruments. Gustavo reaches for his baton, raises his arms slowly and stands silently for a brief moment. Then, with a slight nod, he leads the orchestra through the subtle first measures of the allegro. The symphony is absolutely wonderful! Every musician plays each individual note beautifully, and every measure of the symphony breathes with a steady rhythm and wonderful harmony.Continue reading

Stopping seizures is as simple as turning on a light (and some genetics)

What if you change your mind with the flip of a light switch?  Over the past decade, optogenetics has become an important component of neuroscience research.  By introducing genes that code for fast light-activated proteins (opsins) into a specific cell-type, researchers can shine a certain color of light onto living tissue to activate these opsins and examine how those specific cells’ activity modulates behavior in real-time.  For example, light-activation of specific neurons in the motor cortex of a mouse causes it to only make right turns, but otherwise behave normally when the light is off.  Thus, optogenetics is a great tool to see how neural activity is coordinated with behavior.Continue reading