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Posts Tagged ‘Neuron’

A young woman and man embracing while outdoors.
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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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Modified drawing of the neural circuitry of th...
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You already know this, but when you are stressed out (chronic stress), your brain doesn’t work very wellThat’s right – just when you need it most – your brain has a way of letting you down!

Here are a few things that happen to the very cells (in the hippocampus) that you rely on:

reorganization within mossy fiber terminals
loss of excitatory glutamatergic synapses
reduction in the surface area of postsynaptic densities
marked retraction of thorny excrescences
alterations in the lengths of the terminal dendritic segments of pyramidal cells
reduction of the dorsal anterior CA1 area volume

Thanks brain!  Thanks neurons for abandoning me when I need you most!  According to this article, these cellular changes lead to, “impaired hippocampal involvement in episodic, declarative, contextual and spatial memory – likely to debilitate an individual’s ability to process information in new situations and to make decisions about how to deal with new challenges.” UGH!

Are our cells making these changes for a reason?  Might it be better for cells to remodel temporarily rather than suffer permanent, life-long damage?  Perhaps.  Perhaps there are molecular pathways that can lead the reversal of these allostatic stress adaptations?

Check out this recent paper: “A negative regulator of MAP kinase causes depressive behavior” [doi 10.1038/nm.2219]  the authors have identified a gene – MKP-1 – a phosphatase that normally dephosphorylates various MAP kinases involved in cellular growth, that, when inactivated in mice, produces animals that are resistant to chronic unpredictable stress.  Although its known that MKP-1 is needed to limit immune responses associated with multi-organ failure during bacterial infections, the authors suggest:

“pharmacological blockade of MKP-1 would produce a resilient of anti-depressant response to stress”

Hmmm … so Mother Nature is using the same gene to regulate the immune response (turn it off so that it doesn’t damage the rest of the body) and to regulate synaptic growth (turn it off – which is something we DON’T want to do when we’re trying to recover from chronic stress)?  Mother Nature gives us MKP-1 so I can survive an infection, but the same gene prevents us from recovering (finding happiness) from stress?

Of course, we do not need to rely only on pharmacological solutions.  Exercise & social integration are cited by these authors as the top 2 non-medication strategies.

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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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Peter Mark Roget (Roget's Thesaurus)
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On Fridays, after a regular practice session, our shala is open for quiet meditation.  This is a new experience for me, even as I’ve read much about the mental and physical health benefits accrued by experienced practitioners.  As someone who is totally exhausted after practice – indeed, I couldn’t move another muscle even if I wanted – I always think it will be easy to settle in, and pass 30 minutes  in quiet stillness.

Sure enough though, even as my body is spent and motionless, my mind starts to wander, and wander, and wander some more.  “Damn”, I think, “here we go again”. Just a few minutes in, and I’m losing a battle – with myself.  “This is going to be the longest 30 minutes of my life!” What to do?

Some experts say to simply LABEL your thoughts and feelings.  Just find a word to place on the thought or feeling – and then – let it go.  Does this really work?  How does this trick work?

Recent brain imaging studies seem to show that when a word is applied to a negative emotion,  the brain changes how it processes that emotion and shifts processing to neural systems that avoid centers of the brain (the amygdala, in particular) that send neural projections to our face, gut and heart (areas where we tend to physically “feel” our bad feelings).   It seems that our ability to use words is an important tool in how we cope with emotional experience.  Either we succumb to the storms of negative emotions that can well up inside us from time to time (and feel lousy inside), or we can manage these feelings – using our words – and feel less lousy inside.   Apparently, the use of words, alters neural processing – leading us to experience less tightening in the chest, clenching in the gut, etc.,  etc. than we would otherwise feel when negative emotions come over us.  One of the researchers, David Cresswell, remarks: “This is an exciting study because it brings together the Buddha‘s teachings – more than 2,500 years ago, he talked about the benefits of labeling your experience – with modern neuroscience.”

But this is easier said than done.

How do I label a thought?  How do I label an emotion?  I mean, “I feel, um, um, frustrated, lousy, anxious … crap … I’m not exactly sure how I feel?  What’s the word I’m looking for?

Indeed – the words – the words – as in, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” WORDS.  Do I know enough words?  How many words are there anyway to describe all the possible feelings that a person can feel?  How many do you know?

Check this list out.    There are more than 3,000 words in the English language to describe various feelings.  Thank you Peter Mark Roget (who, ironically, worked on the first thesaurus as a means to cope with negative feelings associated with depression).  I will bring my thesaurus – full of these tools to help me label my feelings – to meditation practice from now on!

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The 14th Dalai Lama, a renowned Tibetan Buddhi...
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In this essay, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama addresses the question, “What possible benefit could there be for a scientific discipline such as neuroscience in engaging in dialogue with Buddhist contemplative tradition?”

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Shakti
Image by alicepopkorn via Flickr

Some of the most epic and beautiful of the yoga sutras are found in the final book IV.  One of them popped into mind when I came across a recent neuroscience report entitled, “Predicting Persuasion-Induced Behavior Change from the Brain” by Emily Falk and colleagues at the Department of Psychology at the  University of California, Los Angeles.  [DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0063-10.2010].  Here, a research team asks if there are places in the brain that encode future – yes, future actions.  More specifically, they asked 20 volunteers to lay in an MRI scanner and listen/view a series of messages on the benefits and importance of sunscreen.  Then, 1-week later, they inquired about the frequency of sunscreen use.  It turns out that sunscreen use did increase (suggesting the subjects read the messages), but more interestingly, that there were correlations in brain activity (in several regions of the brain) with the degree of increased sunscreen use.  That is, some individuals recorded a bit of brain activity that predicted their future use of sunscreen.

Very neat indeed!  although, there are likely many reasons to remain skeptical.  This is because the brain is a very complex system and, with so much going on inside, its likely anyone could find correlations in activity with any-old “something” and “some area of the brain” if they looked hard enough.  In this article however, the authors had preselected their brain regions of interest – the medial frontal cortex and the precuneus – since another group had shown that activity in these regions were able to predict future actions (on the order of a few seconds).  Thus, the research team was not looking for any willy-nilly correlation, but for a specific type of interaction between the brain and future action (this time on the order of weeks).

The particular ancient sutra that may have some poetic tie-ins here is IV.12 atita anagatam svarupatah asti adhvabhedat dharmanam “the existence of the past and future is as real as that of the present.  As moments roll into movements which have yet to appear as the future, the quality of knowledge in one’s intellect and consciousness is affected.”

Might there be neural traces predicting one future actions?  This research makes it seem possible.  Are these traces accessible to ordinary folks or advanced meditators?  Who knows.  As always, the joy lies in trying to find out and trying to reach ever deeper states of harmony and unity.  One thing I found intriguing was that the research team picked the medial prefrontal cortex and the precuneus because these brain regions,

“are reliably co-activated across a host of “self” processes and the extent to which people perceive persuasive messages to be self-relevant has long been thought to play a part in attitude and behavioral change”.

Certainly, when something feels relevant to “me” and reinforces my own “self” image, I’m more prone to remember and act upon it.  Yoga, for example! I hope I’m encoding signals now that will predict my attendance in class this week!

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