It’s All In Your Head
With institutes like Max Planck and Scripps Florida, we live in quite the scientific community. The discoveries and advancements made today by local, renowned scientists are paving the way for a better tomorrow. We bring you the latest research happening right here in the Palm Beaches on one of the most important topics of all: the mind. With mind games, brain food and more to keep you feeling fresh, you’ll finish reading with plenty of food for thought.
A Beautiful Mind A closer look at how our minds work
Understanding how the brain works and how it develops has been a focal point for scholars, scientists and doctors for centuries. And rightly so. The brain interprets our senses, controls our behavior and initiates our movement. And it is the one organ that happens to be in the proverbial driver seat of life navigating our very existence. Our bodies are just along for the ride.
But despite the attention this complicated, 3-pound organ draws, it’s still one of the biggest mysteries.
“There are so many questions we don’t have answers to that are holding back progress on some of the disorders such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, epilepsy and bipolar disorder,” says Dr. David Fitzpatrick, the scientific director and chief executive officer at the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience in Jupiter.
Dedicated to understanding the fundamental basic science that is relevant to these disorders, Max Planck is on the front line of this scientific battleground. Its scientists are trying to discover how the brain works, so they can provide the next generation of drugs and therapies.
Scripps Florida has attracted nationwide attention for its research projects. And even though its neighbor Max Planck is not yet a household name like Scripps, it is part of a large, revered scientific institution based primarily in Germany, with only one institute outside of Europe – the one here in Jupiter.
“We are attracting world-class scientists, who are performing cutting-edge research right here in our own community,” Fitzpatrick says.
These researchers are bringing the nation one step closer to finding the cure for some of the most troubling mental afflictions.
Why do we forget?
Ever wondered why you forget one thing and remember another?
Why your brain discards memories as if they’ve never existed?
So has Dr. Ron Davis.
According to Davis, who is a leading research scientist at Scripps, the more he can learn about forgetting, the better chance he has to develop treatments that could inhibit memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive aging, or other neuropsychiatric disorders that impact memory like post-traumatic stress disorder.
• Studying fruit flies – a key model for studying memory
• Taking a look at short-term memories versus long-term memories
• Davis and his team discovered that forgetting memories is as active of a process as making memories
• A subset of dopamine receptors is responsible for acquiring and discarding memories
• Receptors forget recent, unconsolidated memories unless something overrides the process (i.e., you tell yourself to remember something important for a test)
Erasing bad memories: Is it possible?
Scripps scientist Dr. Courtney Miller is researching memory formation. But instead of merely understanding memories, she’s hoping to disrupt them.
Miller’s team is the first to erase unwanted, drug-related memories in rats and mice models without affecting other memories.
The potential for relapse never goes away, Miller says. The relapse triggers that seem to be the most insidious are reminders that activate memory circuits in the brain, which lead to cravings that can be hard to control.
• Memory formations while on a methamphetamine get stored differently in the brain.
• Research showed drug-associated memories appeared differently in the way they were stored.
Miller was able to locate and erase old memories that could trigger a relapse, without making the subject retrieve the memories.
It’s normal to be forgetful at times – but when is it a sign of something more?
Have you ever forgotten an appointment? Misplaced your keys? Had difficulty remembering names of acquaintances?
Have you ever wondered if any of these memory lapses were associated with normal age-related memory loss? Or worse, associated with signs of dementia?
You’re not alone.
“That is the big question that everyone is working on,” says Dr. Lee Fox, a radiologist at Jupiter Medical Center. “Very early signs of memory loss are very difficult to differentiate with what’s normal and what’s a cognitive disease.”
Alzheimer’s – a progressive disease that affects memory – is one of the most common causes of dementia.
But memory hiccups like forgetting where you left your things are not necessarily signs of dementia.
“You could be a little bit forgetful or have trouble remembering someone’s name, in the mildest forms, and that’s not necessarily Alzheimer’s disease. … That can be senile dementia or vascular disease in the brain,” Fox says.
Through imaging scans, which show the activity and size of the brain, Fox can detect whether someone is headed toward that kind of dementia, or whether their cognitive impairment is potentially reversible.
The cause and progression of Alzheimer’s is still not understood, and there is no cure. But there is hope. Researchers have been focusing on beta-amyloid, a protein with a chemical property that makes it clump together with other beta-amyloid proteins. The protein has been found in increased deposits in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. It’s responsible for abnormalities associated with the disease.
According to Fox, the FDA has recently approved a new imaging technique called a radio tracer. It’s a special nuclear dye that attaches to the amyloid, enabling radiologists to locate and detect large amounts of amyloid.
Even though this is exciting technology, Fox says there are still two problems that arise. By the time all the amyloid is deposited, it’s too late – the damage is done. And the other thing is, some people may have this amyloid and never develop symptoms. “It’s not 100 percent specific, but it’s still much better than we’ve ever been able to do before,” Fox says.
At Max Planck, scientist Dr. Ryohei Yasuda may have uncovered the missing link between beta amyloid and Alzheimer’s disease.
Yashuda and his team have discovered a protein called “centaurin-1” (CentA1) in Alzheimer’s animal models. By inhibiting the cell’s production of the protein in these models, Yashuda found that the symptoms of Alzheimer’s went away and the neuron dysfunction was reversed, even though the beta-amyloid was still present.
Yashuda hopes to publish his findings this year.
Fitness for Your Brain
5 Brain Exercises to Keep Minds Fresh
1. Engage in stimulating mental activities. Read challenging material, play games that involve strategy, or do crossword puzzles, word puzzles and number puzzles like Sudoku to engage your brain.
2. Change your route to work or reorganize your desk. Your attention can decrease as you get older, so by switching up a routine, you’re kicking your attention span into a higher gear.
3. Learn new things like games, recipes, a musical instrument or a foreign language.
4. Recall your visual and spatial surroundings. Next time you walk into a room, pick out five items and their locations. When you exit the room, try to recall all five items and where they were located. Try this again after two hours.
5. Exercise regularly. Research has shown exercise can stimulate the human brain’s ability to maintain old network connections and make new ones, which are vital to healthy cognition.
5 Brain Foods
Nuts and seeds, like almonds, peanuts and sunflower seeds, are packed with vitamin E, which keeps the brain and heart healthy. Higher levels of vitamin E have been linked with lower levels of cognitive decline as you get older.
Animal studies have found a link between blueberries and age-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. It has been shown to improve motor skills, learning capacity, memory and focus.
Avocados are loaded with monounsaturated fats, which promote a healthy blood flow and a healthy brain.
Fish like salmon, sardines and herring are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which give the brain a boost. Fish has been linked to improved memory and focus.
Green leafy vegetables
Studies have found a diet rich in vegetables, especially green leafy ones and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, is associated with a reduced rate of cognitive decline.
Advances in Autism
Dr. McLean Bolton is heavily invested in trying to figure out exactly which parts of the brain circuits are malfunctioning. As the group research leader in disorders of neural circuit function at Max Planck, Bolton is particularly interested in autism.
Social impairment, communication difficulty and restricted repetitive behaviors can manifest in a person with autism. A person with autism could also have trouble with emotions. In some studies the amygdala, the portion of the brain that is responsible for emotional response and fear, was found to be transiently enlarged during development in some autistic patients. So Bolton has hypothesized that part of the problem with autism could rest in the amygdala. Bolton’s team studied mice that have the same mutation as human genes associated with autism.
•Excitatory synapses in the amygdala are stronger in mice who carry a mutation associated with human autism, which could make the mouse (or human) more fearful.
•To perhaps compensate for this excitation, there was an increased connectivity of inhibition in the amygdala.
Exploring Brain Disorders
Breakthroughs in Epilepsy Research
Epilepsy is an incurable neurological disorder that disturbs nerve cell activity in the brain, causing seizures. And the medications that currently exist only help 70 percent of patients.
But Dr. Hiroki Taniguchi is hoping to change that.
Max Planck is on the brink of understanding the role of inhibitory cells in brain disorders. Taniguchi is peeling back the layers of a scientific theory, and focusing on chandelier cells as the missing link that causes epilepsy.
Powerful inhibitory neurons, chandelier cells have a crucial role in controlling the firing of certain excitatory neurons in the brain. Incredibly powerful, just one chandelier cell can control and coordinate the firing of hundreds of excitatory cells around it.
According to Taniguchi, researchers have found that a common denominator among epileptic patients happens to be the loss of these chandelier cells, and therefore a deficiency in the control of excitatory neuron firing.
For years scientists have been hypothesizing that an imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory neurons could be the cause of epileptic disorder. But when trying to find these chandelier cells to study them further, Taniguchi says scientists were subject to trial and error. They were injecting a dye into neurons, which left the process of locating chandelier cells up to chance.
Now, thanks to Taniguchi’s research, science has taken a step forward. Taniguchi found the origin of where chandelier cells are born during development.
“We are now able to label and manipulate chandelier cells, and specifically test their function in model mice in a reliable way,” Taniguchi says.
If transplanting these powerful inhibitory neurons into epilepsy patients works, the super active cells within an epileptic patient may be tamed and a cure may even be uncovered.