This past May (2019) the symposium “Psychedelic Therapy in Society: Exploring the Mechanisms of Action and Delivery of Care” was hosted by the International Forum on Consciousness at the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center in Madison, WI.
Having the good fortune to work across the street at Promega, I was able to attend this two-day conference and learn from leading researchers in psychedelics and about their use in therapy.
My interest in psychedelics is relatively new. I didn’t experiment with these substances during high school or college years. But in recent years, I’ve seen a close relative struggle with profound anxiety related to terminal disease, and another with substance abuse and depression. The lessons learned from each experience is that the battery of medicines used to treat such illness can result in additional problems for which there are currently not good medication options. And in some cases, traditional medications can cause further health problems. Continue reading “Psychedelics as Therapeutic Agents: Current Research, Potential Benefits”
Have you ever had a day where you feel exceptionally good? As in take on the world kind of good? You feel so much better than the previous couple of days that you stop to wonder why.
Then it dawns on you.
The sun is out. It’s been cloudy for the past week but now—SUNSHINE.
You go out to lunch or for a walk just to take in those rays. Sure, it feels warmer than your darkened office space, but it’s the light rather than warmth that’s making a difference.
You purposely don’t wear sunglasses and it feels like the light is coming in through your eyes and massaging that part of your brain that is your happy zone. Are you imagining it or is the sun really affecting how you feel?
In a study reported in the September 2018 issue of Cell we learn that this is not a figment of your or my imagination (1). There is, in fact, a type of retinal cell that transports sunlight directly to the part of our brains that affects mood.
Eyes and the Body’s Master Clock
Circadian rhythms are innate time-keeping functions found in all multicellular organisms. This subject of the 2017 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine, circadian rhythms are fueled by daily light-dark cycles and are critical to the function of neurologic, immune, musculoskeletal and cardiac tissues (2). Nearly every mammalian cell is affected by circadian rhythms.
The human body has a circadian master clock, the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN. The SCN is a highly innervated tissue located in the hypothalamus (see image). It is connected directly to the retina by the optic nerve, and thus is influenced by external light and dark.
The retina of the eye is the light gathering instrument for this organ. Historically, it’s been understood that the retina is composed of two cell types, rods and cones, that function in transmitting light and images to the optic nerve, which sends those signals to the brain.
Studies by Hattar et al. in the early 2000s identified that another cell found in the retina, the melanopsin-containing intrinsically photoactive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs) as the transmitter of circadian light signals (3). Through this direct connection to the SCN, the circadian master clock, the ipRGCs can influence a wide range of light-dependent functions independent of image processing (4).
Now Fernandez et al. have identified multiple types of ipRGCs. They showed that ipRGCs that mediate the effects of light on learning work via the SCN, while the pathway for light influencing emotions is different.
They discovered a new target of ipRGC cells, the perihabenular nucleus (PHb). The PHb is a newly recognized thalamic region of the brain. The authors showed that the connection between light and mood is regulated by ipRGCs through the PHb versus the SCN. They show that the PHb is integrated into other mood-regulating centers of the thalamic region.
Daylight, and lack thereof, does affect both our mood and our ability to learn. In this 2018 report, we have learned that the pathways for these effects are distinct, and gain an understanding of a new thalamic region by which the light and mood actions occur. This information could influence development of better drugs and/or therapies for major depressive disorders.
For those of us with seasonal affective disorder, the evidence is undeniable—lack of light can cause issues, from sleep-wake problems, to mood and learning issues.
And while we can’t create sunshine, a special lamp or light box may help to gain some full spectrum light. To learn more about how to choose such a lamp and when to use it, see this Mayo clinic article for details.
Held May 2018, Means and Metrics for Detecting and Measuring Consciousness was designed to explore emerging technologies for studying the phenomenon of consciousness, including research related to sleep, wakefulness, altered states, focused attention and coma. We asked the question: How might our ability to better measure consciousness create opportunities to improve human function, resolve disease states and keep the mind and brain throughput all stages of life?
The International Forum on Consciousness offers a lively two days of information sharing and discussion regarding important—and often challenging—topics. Over the years, we have been guided through a range of topics, including creativity, near death, entheogens, intelligence in nature, business evolution and the effects of sensory inputs. This year, we’re tackling Means and Metrics for Detecting and Measuring Consciousness. You can find out more here: https://www.btci.org/events-symposia-2018/international-forum-on-consciousness/ .
As we work on the final details for this year and registrations flow in, I took a moment to pause and reflect on the fact that several of the registrants have joined us for many, if not all, of our past events. It’s gratifying to see that they are taking time out of their normal routines to make their way to the Promega campus again this spring. So, I asked a few of them to share their thoughts for this post and this is what they had to say: Continue reading “Back for More: Thoughts from 3 Regular Attendees on the International Forum on Consciousness”
“The Great Book of Nature is written in mathematical language” –Galileo Galilei (1)
If mathematics is the language of the universe, might we find the ability to do math hard-wired in species?
Research in primates has demonstrated that even without training, humans and monkeys possess numerosity, the ability to assess the number of items in a set (2,3).
A paper in Current Biology from Wagener and colleagues provides evidence that crows are born with a subset of neurons that are “hard wired” to perceive the number of items in a set (4). This work provides yet more evidence supporting a hypothesis of an innate “number sense” that is provided by a specific group of “preprogrammed” neurons.
In this study, Wagener’s group measured the responses of single neurons in two “numerically naïve” crows to color dot arrays. They measured neurons in the endbrain region known as the niopallium caudolaterale (NCL), which is thought to be the avian analog of the primate prefrontal cortex. They found that 12% of the neurons in NCL specifically responded to numbers and that specific neurons responded to specific numbers of items with greater or lesser activity.
This is the first such study to investigate the idea of an innate “sense of number” in untrained vertebrates that are not primates, and as such it suggests that a hard-wired, innate “sense of number” is not a special feature of the complex cerebral cortex of the primate brain but is an adaptive property that evolved independently in the differently structured and evolved end brains of birds.
Many questions remain. Are there similarities in the actual neurons involved? What does learning do on a physiological level to these neurons: Increase their number, increase connections to them? What other vertebrates have similar innate mechanisms for assessing numbers of items? What about other members of the animal kingdom that need to have a sense of number for social or foraging behavior? How is it accomplished?
And finally, one last burning question, if birds are dinosaurs, does that mean that dinosaurs perished because they didn’t do their math homework? Asking for an eleven-year-old I know.
The mammalian brain is extremely complex. We know that it processes and stores information through synaptic connections within a complicated neural network. But how exactly do neurons communicate with each other? And how did this neural network come to exist? A recent paper published in Cell may provide some answers. It describes a previously unknown signaling pathway–with surprising origins–that transports RNA between neurons. Continue reading “A Virus-like Neural Pathway Hints at the Origins of the Mammalian Brain”
While my morning routine typically only involves a large cup of coffee, increasingly more Americans are beginning their days with a set of sun salutations. Sun salutations are a series of poses originating from yoga, one of the most popular types of mind-body intervention in the United States. Along with yoga, other commonly recognized mind-body interventions (MBI) include meditation, mindfulness, Tai chi, and Qigong. Despite the fact that each of these activities differ in the amount of physical effort required, they all view mental and physical health as single cohesive system.
The influence of overall mind-body intervention on health and wellness is an ancient concept that is now revolutionizing Western medicine. In the past, Western medicine has focused primarily on the health of the physical body. Yoga and meditation were viewed as beneficial, but were less likely to be recommended by clinicians as a method for relief. Now, with recent developments in gene expression analysis techniques, we have a better understanding of biological mechanisms and how they interact with psychological variables. A possible shift in clinician’s philosophies can be seen in the steady rise in the complementary health approaches of yoga, Tai chi, and qi gong1.
To completely understand how MBI affects a person’s health, we must first realize the links between stress and the conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA). CTRA refers to the common molecular pattern discovered in individuals facing hardship. Whether it be in the form of diagnosis of a life-threatening disease or the death of a loved one, the characteristics of CTRA stay consistent. CTRA causes an influx in the production of epinephrine and norepinephrine. These neuromodulators then affect the production of transcription factors. Continue reading ““Reverse” Molecular Reactions in DNA through Mind-Body Interventions”
Mix a love of eating with a desire to live a long, healthy life what do you get? Probably the average 21st century person looking for a way to continue enjoying food despite insufficient exercise and/or an age-related decline in caloric needs.
Enter intermittent fasting, a topic that has found it’s way into most news sources, from National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences publications to WebMD and even the popular press. For instance, National Public Radio’s “The Salt” writers have tried and written about their experiences with dietary restriction.
While fasting has enjoyed fad-like popularity the past several years, it is not new. Fasting, whether purposely not eating or eating a restricted diet, has been practiced for 1,000s of years. What is new is research studies from which we are learning the physiologic effects of fasting and other forms of decreased nutrient intake.
The 16th International Forum on Consciousness, Conscious Evolution: Awakening Through the Senses, in Madison, WI, May 18-19, will bring together a diverse group of presenters including Diane Ackerman (Best-selling Author, The Zookeeper’s Wife and A Natural History of the Senses), Rebecca Alban Hoffberger (Founder and Director, American Visionary Art Museum), Louie Schwartzberg (Cinematographer, Director and Producer) and Andrea Stevenson Won (Director of the Virtual Embodiment Lab and Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, Cornell University), among others.
This year’s forum focuses on the senses, and explores how altering awareness of sensory inputs might change perceptions of reality and expand consciousness in positive directions for self and others. In addition to presentations, attendees will have opportunities to engage in direct sensory experience through virtual reality, movement, sound and visuals, as well as tastes and aromas. Find more information at www.btci.org/consciousness.
The forum is open to the general public, but participation is limited to 300 people, and advanced registration is required. The registration fee is $250.00 (US), and scholarship opportunities are available. Registrants will have the opportunity to join a presenter for a small-group discussion over dinner on Thursday, evening, May 18, for an additional $85.00 (US).
About BTC Institute
The BTC Institute is a not-for-profit organization operated exclusively for educational, scientific and cultural purposes. Learn more about its K–12 programs, scientific course offerings, and annual educational forums and symposia at www.btci.org/.
Imagine driving in your car and suddenly not recognizing where you, you don’t remember where you were going and have no idea how to find your way home. What if you looked across the breakfast table at your spouse and no longer recognizing them? Or maybe you have to brace yourself every time you visit your parent, waiting for the day when they won’t know who you are. This is reality for the estimated 50 million (worldwide) Alzheimer’s suffers and their families.
For a world with an aging population, Alzheimer’s is a growing problem. Recent estimates suggest that 11% of people over the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s disease. For people 85 and older, that number increases to 32% (1).
Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating degenerative brain disease. It is the most common cause of dementia, and is characterized by a decline in cognitive skills such as memory, language skills, communication and problem solving abilities. These symptoms make it difficult for people with Alzheimer’s to perform everyday activities. It also is difficult to diagnose, even more difficult to treat, and, as of now, impossible to cure. Continue reading “Restoring Memory in Alzheimer’s Mice with Microbubbles and Ultrasound”