October Update

Bought a standard poodle puppy.  Bringing him home October 5, so October will be full of housebreaking, and FUN.



Entries in brain (11)


Dopamine, Learning, and Addiction

Yet more about brain chemistry and addiction:  A few years ago, the Harvard Mental Health Letter pointed out that the dopamine link is important with respect to learning.

         That is, when we do something pleasurable, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in our brain and tells us to repeat the experience. 

         But dopamine is also involved in parts of the brain having to do with forming memories and learning.  So not only do we get the message to repeat the pleasurable experience, we also truly “learn” to repeat it.  Hence, we may become addicted.

         Of course, from the standpoint of evolution, we need to feel pleasure in learning, because learning was and is essential to our survival.  And we still enjoy learning new things, whether they are in in academics or entertainment or gossip.  I know I get a kick out of learning about the connection between dopamine and addiction—it explains a lot.

         Dopamine apparently is part of becoming addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling, food, thrill seeking, etc.

         But ironically, dopamine also rewards use of recovery techniques, especially in twelve-step programs.  Recovering addicts experience the pleasures of spiritual practice and fellowship.  Clearly, we have a lot to learn about dopamine, the human brain, neurotransmitters, and who knows what else?


The Human Brain and Addiction, 2

In my last post, I spoke of Dr. Nora D. Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her message about addiction.  Dr. Volkow sees addiction as a psychological, or brain disease because it is a product of brain chemicals.

         In her appearance at a high school in Harlem in New York City, Volkow answered student questions about drugs and drug use and abuse.  Volkow’s answers were honest, based in brain science.  She told the students about brain development in adolescence and young adulthood.  She explained that the frontal cortex, the decision center of the brain, matures more slowly than, say, the amygdala, a center for emotion.  In adolescents, this temporary difference in development of two parts of the brain can lead to risk taking,  Risk taking is essential to stepping out on your own and to learning new things, but it can also lead to drug addiction or unsafe sex.

         Students asked Volkow about brain changes with marijuana use, and she told them about brain receptors involved in both marijuana use and learning.  Cannabinoid receptors get tied up by marijuana, and so cannot be used for learning!


The Human Brain and Addiction, 1

A week ago, The New York Times published a profile of Dr. Nora D. Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  She is a very appealing person to begin with, which helps a lot with her various campaigns:  She wants to interest people in the subject of addiction.  She wants to educate people about addiction.  And she wants to prevent and cure drug abuse.

         Dr. Volkow is physically attractive, with a shock of curly hair and a slim build.  She is a fascinating speaker, direct and straightforward, with a charming Mexican accent.  Her audience appeal includes teenagers, parents, journalists, and scientists.

         When Dr. Volkow speaks of brain neurotransmitters, especially dopamine, she is very convincing.  She explains addiction as a disease, and speaks of how to prevent or cure this disease.  She clearly cares deeply about human beings and wants to keep them from addiction or help them recover from addiction.

         More about this in my next post.


When Will We Have an Autism Cure?

In my last post, I had begun talking about brain evolution in preparation for talking about the problem of autism.  I suppose I should say “autisms” because it has become clear that there is not just one such condition.  Instead we are faced with a spectrum of conditions that have certain characteristics in common, principally failures in social connection.

         Again we face the problem that humans think in categories.  We want an autism category, and we want a cause category, and we want a cure category.  But almost nothing in biology is that simple.

         As I discussed in my August 9, 2007 post, What Is Autism Trying to Teach Us?, every characteristic we have is the result of complex genetic interactions producing complex chemical interactions within and around our cells.  This is true of any autistic characteristic.  So it is impossible that autism could be simple.  This doesn’t mean we can’t figure it out.  But it does mean figuring it out will take patience and persistent research.

         And autisms seem to be conditions of the human brain, either primarily, or secondarily in response to some genetic or physiological causes.  As I pointed out in my last post, the human brain is amazingly complex.  It doesn’t work the way people thought it did.  So whatever is wrong in autism is probably also complex and fairly unpredictable. 

         Scientific knowledge generally results from experiments.  Experiments are about predictions.  So in order to figure out autism, researchers will have to know a great deal more about how brains generate social connections.

         There is so much exciting brain research going on today, I am sure the problems of autism will eventually be solved.  But it’s hard to wait.


Autism-Vaccination Connection Turns Out to Be a Fraud, Part 2

In my last post, I was speaking of a “negative wonder,” the story of how a false medical notion—that vaccination causes autism—became a terrible threat.

         In 1998, the British medical journal The Lancet published an article by A.J. Wakefield claiming he had found a connection between childhood vaccination against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and autism.  This claim was false. Wakefield had published the article in order to make close to a million dollars for consulting in a lawsuit.

          Belief in the false claim spread wildly.  Over the next ten years, study after study, in various countries, proved that Wakefield’s claim was wrong.  But autistic adults, and parents of autistic children came to believe that all these studies were part of a plot financed by pharmaceutical companies or by government: Anything to hang on to the supposed vaccination/autism link.

         Last year, journalist Brian Deer researched every one of the 12 cases Wakefield used in his original study.  He found glaring discrepancies.  In some cases, autism began well before MMR vaccination.  In some cases, autism began too long after MMR to support the claimed connection.  In some cases there was no autisim.  In some cases, other symptoms that Wakefield claimed were part of the “autism/inflammatory bowel disease” syndrome were not present.

         In fact, Deer was able to display in a table, how none of the data support Wakefield’s claim.

         Personally, I would like to add that the study was also flawed from the standpoint of statistics: The children for the study were not chosen randomly, and the number of children examined for the study, 12, was far too small to provide significant data.

         And yet…we still don’t know what causes autism, nor do we have any cures. 

         The human brain is an exquisite wonder.  It can heal from a massive stroke and be better than before (as with Jill Bolte Taylor).  It can totally remap its own parts (as in The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, M.D.)  It can understand cosmic and biological universes.  Surely it can figure out what’s what with the autistic brain. 

         More about this in my next post.