The tight embrace of welcoming hugs, the cozy warmth of a crackling fireplace, the brisk chill of afternoon walks in snowy woods—these are some of the feelings that, for me, make the winter holidays one of the best times of the year. This season, I’m also choosing to be thankful for the biology that makes these sensations possible.
This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine went to two scientists who discovered the receptors that allow us to sense touch and temperature. Joining other sensory mechanisms recognized by the Nobel committee, these discoveries add to our knowledge of how we interact with the world around us.
Depression is not simply a mood disorder, a feeling of sadness, or being ill at ease. Depression can completely shut a person down, manifesting as an inability to make decisions, to take action, to think. Even sleep is affected by depression.
Researchers and clinicians who treat depression are learning that the physical manifestations can be mirrored by internal, cellular changes. Some people with depression have decreases in their gray matter volume, particularly in areas like the hippocampus (important to memory, learning, and emotions) and prefrontal cortex (where higher-level thought and planning abilities are based).
Additionally, imaging has shown a decrease in the number of synapses—the structures through which electrical or chemical signals are passed between neurons and other cells—in persons with chronic depression. Without the signals that synapses transmit, brain function is disrupted.
And without intervention in depression, synapse decrease can continue.
While there are drugs and behavioral therapies to treat depression, these therapies can be slow to act and sometimes ineffective. In addition, once synaptic loss has occurred, these therapies are less effective.
“It has long been recognized that these compounds (serotonergic psychedelics like psilocybin) may have therapeutic potential for neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction”.
I had never heard of Halorubrum sodomense until a few days ago. It’s name describes it pretty well, it is a salt-tolerant (Halophilic) organism that contains the red-colored photosynthetic pigment archaerhodopsin, and it was originally isolated from the region of Sodom near the Dead Sea. It’s an organism that is well-known only to those with reason to study it. Many of the rest of us will never have cause to say its name, or to even remember it, and may even occasionally wonder why it is studied at all.
Halorubrum sodomense was in the news recently because a genetically engineered form of its rhodopsin was used to create a method that lights up mammalian neurons as they fire. This exciting development was reported in a paper by Kralj et al, published in the Nov 27 issue of Nature Methods. Continue reading “Seeing the Potential”
Without really trying to be, turns out I’m kind of wired for trivia. My brain seems to reserve lots of little nooks and crannies for bits of information that are probably entirely useless to my day-to-day life or career, but man, are they fun to pull out at parties. I can’t tell you why it’s easier for me to remember that horses are largely physiologically incapable of throwing up than it is to recall some of the names of my childhood friends, I just know that’s the way it is. I’ve learned to embrace it. But is trivia useful, or just a waste of gray matter? Turns out, absorption of trivia is a potential tool to engender positive brain plasticity (neuroplasticity), especially as we age and fight the good fight against dementia and memory loss. Continue reading “Neuroplasticity, trivia and a sprinkling of Twitter”
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