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Posts Tagged ‘Emotion’

Hey genome, why U make me stink at networking?

If only there was an allele that LESSENED the apprehensive and uncomfortable feelings I get when meeting new people.

As such negative feelings are the work of my amygdala, I’m wishing for some sort of LOSS-OF-FUNCTION allele that REDUCES the activity of neural circuits involved in the emotional processing of fear … but leaves other neural circuits untouched.

I just want something that takes the edge off new social experiences … yunno?

How about rs33977775 ? It contains a derived (as opposed to ancestral) T-allele that causes a Y135F change that disrupts the binding sites of the NPBWR1 receptor to its neuropeptide ligands (ie. LOSS-OF-FUNCTION).  Amazingly, this receptor has a restricted pattern of gene expression only among limbic circuits involved in emotion and reward processing (ie. EXPRESSED IN EMOTION PROCESSING CIRCUITS ONLY).

In their report, a team of authors measured the reactions of 126 university students to various social stimuli and report that individuals who carry one of these loss-of-function T-alleles (about 30% of the population) show a more positive response to social interactions.

“… the AT group perceived facial expressions more pleasantly than did the AA group, regardless of the category of facial expression. Statistical analysis … also showed that the AT group tended to feel less submissive to an angry face than did the AA group.”

So it seems that rs33977775 may dial down the amygdala response to social stimuli … just enough to ace the job interview, but not so much that you inappropriately hug your new boss. Nice!

Unfortunately, this SNP is not covered by 23andMe v3 and there is no report yet on linkage disequilibrium via 1000 genomes.  Since the frequency of the T-allele is low in African populations (1%) and about 10%-ish in other non-African populations, I guess the odds are that I’m an AA or AT.

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Are you good at reading faces?  You can test yourself  (here, here, here) or just get off the interwebz and go talk to a real person.

The MET and the AKT genes encode proteins that are involved in early brain development and in the production of new synapses.  Since reading faces requires a lifetime of trial-and-error learning (ie. making new synaptic connections), these genes would likely support the development of facial recognition skills.

From the original article:  “When the individuals who were [MET/AKT rs2237717/rs1130233] C carrier and G carrier simultaneously were used as the reference group, their facial emotion perception was better than that of those with TT/AA  (p=0.015).”

I’m a MET/AKT rs2237717/rs1130233 CC/GG and, as my genome predicts,  a pretty good face reader … but am not sure if this is a good thing.  Why are you looking at me like that?

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The article here:

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Too little MAOA


Science article here.

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Are there events in your past that you hide from your friends and colleagues?  Are there parts of your body that you keep covered at all times?  You may think to yourself, “If people see this side of me, they won’t want to associate with me”.

Are you afraid of losing your job?  Losing your spouse or partner?  Creditors who who leave threatening messages?  A physical ailment that could be serious?

If you are an American, you are (statistically) likely to be overweight, over indebted and under increasing threat of losing your job and health benefits.  You may have friends that have “dropped out” of the social loop while being overwhelmed with these many adversities.  They themselves may feel stigmatized or too ashamed to face their usual circle of friends, and might rather stay out of touch.  Its an awful irony how feelings of shame and fear can cause our social relations to deteriorate just when we need them most.

Even if you haven’t dropped out, you may eat, drink or otherwise seek to numb these feelings of fear or shame.  But, deep down inside you may already be aware that by numbing your feelings of fear and shame, you also suppressing other emotions such as affection and joy – and thus undermining the social-familial bonds you are so afraid of losing.  Again, its an awful irony how fear, shame and anxiety can lead us to self-inflicted ruin.

Nevertheless, the grim reality remains.  Our bodies are unsightly, unfit and falling apart as we age.  Our careers paths are no longer certain in the new global economy.  We owe a lot of money and have barely the means to pay it back.  We do not have the resources to pay for old age.  Holy crap!  This is a dire view of the world hunh?!

What to do?  How to avoid the downward spiral of fear and anxiety?  Is there an upside to a deteriorating body?  a loss of career?  a down-shift to a much lower standard of living?

Check out this lecture by Dr. Brene Brown, who has carried out a great deal of social science research on this topic.  You will be amazed.  You will be uplifted.  You will begin to see that THERE IS an upside, and a way to break out of the cycle (unlike corporations, we won’t be getting a bailout).

Yoga and meditation practitioners may enjoy the parts of her talk on “self-love” and “courage” – a word whose origins lie in “cor” the word for “heart” and an ability to look inwardly and face the truth – a common theme, especially in Anusara yoga.

Note to readers:  Lately I’ve been focused on various personal and introspective themes, rather than the usual molecular-cognitive science-ology.  These themes set a base for exploring the basic biology of our emotional and cognitive lives and I’ll be digging into the brain-biology of these themes in the year to come.

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A young woman and man embracing while outdoors.
Image via Wikipedia

Please forgive the absurd title here … its just a play on words from a flabby, middle-aged science geek who is as alluring to “the ladies” as an old leather boot.

Like a lot of males (with active fantasy lives I suppose), my interest was piqued by the recent headline, “What Do Women Really Want? Oxytocin” – based on a recent lecture at this years Society for Neuroscience annual conference.

Oxytocin is a small hormone that also modulates brain activity.  Many have referred it as the “Love Hormone” because it is released into the female brain during breastfeeding (where moms report feeling inextricably drawn to their infants), orgasm and other trust-building and social bonding experiences.  So, the premise of the title (from the male point of view), is a fairly simplistic – but futile – effort to circumvent the whole “social interaction thing” and reduce dating down to handy ways of raising oxytocin levels in females (voila! happier females more prone to social (ahem) bonding).

Of course, Mother Nature is not stupid.  Unless you are an infant, there is no “increase in oxytocin” without a prior “social bonding or shared social experience”.  Mother Nature has the upper hand here … no physical bonding without social binding first!

So, what the heck does this have to do with yoga?  Yes, its true that yoga studios are packed with friendly, health conscious females, but, the practice is mainly a solitary endeavor.  Aside from the chatter before and after class, and the small amount of oxytocin that is released during exercise, there is no social bonding going on that would release the so-called “love hormone”.  Thus, even though “women want yoga”, yoga class may not be the ideal location to “score with chicks”.

However, there may be one aspect of yoga practice that can facilitate social bonding (and hence oxytocin release).  One benefit of a yoga practice (as covered here, here) is an increased ability to “be present” – an improved ability to pay closer attention to your own thoughts and feelings, and also, the thoughts and feelings of another person.

The scientific literature is fairly rich in research showing a close relationship between attention, shared- or joint-attention, trust and oxytocin, and the idea is pretty obvious.  If you are really paying attention to the other person, and paying attention to your shared experience in the moment, the social bond will be stronger, more enjoyable and longer-lasting.  Right?

Soooo – if you want the oxytocin to flow – look your partner in the eye, listen to their thoughts, listen to your own reactions, listen to, and feel their breath as it intermingles with your own, feel their feelings and your own, slow-down and enjoy the minute details of the whole experience and be “right there, right now” with them.  Even if you’ve been with the same person for 40 years, each moment will be new and interesting.

Yoga will teach you how to do this.

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What if you had magic fingers and could touch a place on a person’s body and make all their pain and anguish disappear?  This would be the stuff of legends, myths and miracles! Here’s a research review by Kerry J Ressler  and Helen S Mayberg on the modern ability to electrically “touch” the Vagus Nerve.

The article,  Targeting abnormal neural circuits in mood and anxiety disorders: from the laboratory to the clinic discusses a number of “nerve stimulation therapies” wherein specific nerve fibers are electrically stimulated to relieve mental anguish associated with (drug) treatment-resistant depression.

Vagus nerve stimulation therapy (VNS) is approved by the FDA for treatment of medication-resistant depression and was approved earlier for the treatment of epilepsy20.  …  The initial reasoning behind the use of VNS followed from its apparent effects of elevating mood in patients with epilepsy20, combined with evidence that VNS affects limbic activity in neuroimaging studies21. Furthermore, VNS alters concentrations of serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA and glutamate within the brain2224, suggesting that VNS may help correct dysfunctional neurotransmitter modulatory circuits in patients with depression.

This stuff is miraculous in every sense of the word – to be able to reach in and “touch” the body and bring relief – if not bliss – to individuals who suffer with immense emotional pain.  So who is this Vagus nerve anyway?  Why does stimulating it impart so many emotional benefits?  How can I touch my own Vagus nerve?

The wikipedia page is a great place to explore – suggesting that this nerve fiber is central to the “rest and digest” functions of the parasympathetic nervous system.  As evidenced by the relief its stimulation brings from emotional pain, the Vagus nerve is central to mind-body connections and mental peace.

YOGA is a practice that also brings mental peace.  YOGA,  in so many ways (I hope to elaborate on in future posts),  aims to engage the parasympathetic nervous system (slowing down and resting responses) and disengage the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight responses).  Since we all can’t have our very own (ahem) lululemon (ahem) vagal nerve stimulation device, we must rely on other ways to stimulate the Vagus nerve fiber.  Luckily, many such ways are actually known – so-called “Vagal maneuvers” – such as  holding your breath and bearing down (Valsalva maneuver), immersing your face in ice-cold water (diving reflex), putting pressure on your eyelids, & massage of the carotid sinus area – that have been shown to facilitate parasympathetic (relaxation & slowing down) responses.

But these “Vagal maneuvers” are not incorporated into yoga.  How might yoga engage and stimulate the Vagal nerve bundle? Check out these great resources on breathing and Vagal tone (here, here, here).  I’m not an expert by any means but I think the take home message is that when we breathe deep and exhale, Vagal tone increases.  So, any technique that allows us to increase the duration of our exhalation will increase Vagal tone. Now THAT sounds like yoga!

Even more yogic is the way the Vagus nerve is the only nerve in the parasympathetic system that reaches all the way from the colon to the brain.  The fiber is composed mainly of upward (to the brain) pulsing neurons – which sounds a lot like the mystical Kundalini Serpent that arises upwards from within (starting at the root – colon) and ending in the brain.  The picture above – of the Vagus nerve (bright green fiber) – might be what the ancient yogis had in mind?

some updates:

here’s a great post on the importance of, and teaching of exhalation

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