Is social status hardwired?

Imagine a conversation between two people: Preston Power, the CEO of a prestigious corporation, and Alan Awkward, the assistant to the assistant to the regional manager. It wouldn’t take very long to pick up on the difference in social status between these two individuals even if you had no information about who they were. Body language, the tendency to interrupt, volume of speech, and a host of other nonverbal behaviors automatically cue us in to who is the alpha dog in this scenario. While these behaviors are often viewed as personal choices that we can control, Fei Wang and colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences suggest that poor Mr. Awkward may not be at fault for his plight—his neurons may be to blame.  Continue reading


Emotional Control: Strategies we use for regulating our emotions

Emotions are a central component of the human experience.  They facilitate social interactions, allow us to both appreciate and create powerful works in arts and literature, and guide us in achieving personal goals.  These are only a few of the myriad ways that demonstrate the important role emotions play in our lives.  In a letter to his brother Theodore, Vincent Van Gogh (1889) advised him not to forget that “emotions are the captains of our lives, and we obey them without realizing it.”  Given the source, we might not be inclined to trust such an insight on affect from someone who’s life was plagued by severe emotional distress, but common experience forces us to acknowledge a certain amount of truth to his words: there exist times in each of our lives where we have found ourselves fallen under the sway of an intense emotional experience without even realizing it (at first at least).  Perhaps we were propelled to an angry outburst at a reckless driver, or could not hold back the tears while watching a sad movie.  Indeed, much research has been carried out investigating the ways in which emotions influence our cognitive abilities such as our attention, memory, and decision-making of which we might not even be consciously aware (Dolan 2002). Continue reading

Conventional wisdom upset? Persistent action potential firing in distal axons

Here’s some really interesting information that may change our traditional views about information flow in the nervous system. Neuroscience students learn early on about the mechanics of nerve impulses. It’s important because it’s how neurons, the cells of the nervous system, convey information to each other.

Feel free to start reading after the figure to get the good stuff, but this simple summary of action potentials might be useful to understand it. Continue reading

Are the mind and body separate? They may be in perception

In the history of thought, the idea that the mind and body are separate has been hotly debated. Probably the most famous statement of mind/body dualism is from the philosopher René Descartes, who in the 17th century argued that there are two different kinds of stuff in the world: stuff extended in space (such as chairs, computers, and human bodies) and stuff which lacks extension but somehow exists as an immaterial substance (the human mind).

So, are the mind and body separate?

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I got chills, they’re multiplying

Many of us have experienced chills when listening to music, those weird, almost indescribable sensations sometimes likened to shivers down the spine. If you’re very meta, the line serving as this post’s title might even do it for you (but probably not—chills don’t tend to occur until later on in a song).

Despite our inability to describe chills in words, they are surprisingly easy to identify with the aid of neuroimaging. In a Nature Neuroscience study out this month, researchers at McGill with a history of interest in the topic take typical imaging work on music and chills one step further and describe not only the patterns of neural activation but also their time course.
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Is ADHD a real disorder?

Despite overwhelming scientific evidence that approximately 5 percent of children have a specific deficit in attention compared to children of their same age and sex, many people still question whether ADHD (and some still call it it’s former name: ADD) is a real disorder. A recent article in the New York Times takes on this subject carefully. The article outlines biological evidence that finds clear correlates to the disorder, including molecular genetics, twin studies indicating shared genetic inheritance, and neuroimaging studies finding brain structures and activity within the brain related to ADHD. The article also points out an extremely important point about whether ADHD is truly a “you either have it or you don’t” phenomenon. While currently the disorder is given as Yes or No, from research and clinical work many have concluding that the symptoms occur on a spectrum. There are some children who have milder problems with attention, whereas others have difficulties so intense that new classroom arrangements are necessary.

Although ADHD is complex, especially given the complex nature of attention, the consensus among experts ranging from psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience all conclude on its importance as a true disorder. Further work is needed to determine how best to integrate a spectrum or continuum approach to the diagnosis, and whether problems with attention and hyperactivity/impulsivity should be equally weighted in importance.

People, places, and things – How important are drug-related triggers for addiction relapse?

In cognitive behavioral therapy they’re a big part of the “Five W’s” = When, Where, Why, With, and What. In the various 12-step programs they’re simply referred to as “People, places, and things.” But no matter how you refer to them, drug-associated cues, or “triggers” as they are more commonly known, obviously play a big role in reminding addicted individuals about their drug-seeking behavior, and they are often enough to restart old behavior, even among those who have been abstinent for a while and especially when unprepared for their effect.

Different triggers to reactivate old behavior

Research on relapse (what researchers call reinstatement) has long shown that there are a number of things that can return a person, or an animal, to drug seeking after they have been abstinent for a while. Stress, small drug doses, and the presentation of triggers are all very capable of doing this, even after months of abstinence and likely even years. It’s probably not surprising that giving drugs to an abstinent person can make them want the drug again. In fact, I would venture to guess that most readers believe that this is the most powerful way to induce a relapse (assuming the initial exposure was out of a person’s control and doesn’t count).

Well, recent research suggests that in actuality, triggers, or those people, places, and things, might be more powerful or at least longer lasting relapse risks than even taking drugs!

Triggers, not drugs, are shown to be longest lasting relapse risk

Researchers in Japan trained mice to press a lever for meth, getting them to poke their nose into a hole 60 times for a total of 30 meth administration per three hour session. Every time they poked their nose in the right hole they got a shot of meth and a little light above their nose-poke hole went on (this will become the trigger in the end). Once they were doing this reliably the researchers took away the meth and the animals learned, within 10-20 days, that pressing the lever no longer got them a drug and reduced their number of presses to less than 15 presses per session.

After all this the researchers gave the mice an injection of meth 30 minutes before putting them back in the box – leading the mice to start pressing again for the drug even though in the previous session they has pretty much stopped pressing knowing that no drug was coming. Obviously, the drug injection caused the mice to relapse back into their drug seeking. But, as you can see from the figure below (on the left side, the right side shows that the mice didn’t poke their nose into a hole that did nothing as a control), this little trick only worked once, and the next time the mice were given a shot of meth before being put in the box (after once again being taken through extinction training teaching them that pressing the lever did nothing), they didn’t press the lever any more and just around not doing much.

For the following part of the study the researchers once again took the animals through extinction training (and once again the mice stopped pressing the lever for meth) and then in a following session reintroduced the little light that used to go on every time the mice originally got meth. Just like they did with the meth the animals immediately went back to pressing the lever like crazy, hoping that now that the light was back, so was their meth. Just like with the drug relapse experiment above, the researchers repeated this whole process over two months later, only this time, the little light managed to re-trigger the lever pressing again, unlike the one-trick-pony meth. Seeing this, the researchers went for broke and tried another run of this with the same animals, now following up five months after the last time the animals received meth when they pressed the lever. Again the little light got the animals to increase their pressing, only this time it was a little less impressive than the first two tries (but still significantly higher). All in all, the little light managed to restart the lever pressing by the mice three times and a full five month after the meth-relapse experiment had failed!!!

Conclusion, thoughts, and implications about triggers, relapse, and addiction

In a completely different article I’d written that researchers found a number of different patterns of relapse among alcoholics who went to rehab and that in fact, the vast majority of those who did relapse never went back to the kind of heavy drinking that characterized their earlier problem (see here for One is too many, a thousand not enough). While this research touches on a different aspect of relapse, it once again challenges our thinking about the crucial factors in relapse prevention among addicts. Everyone knows that triggers are important, but the fact that they are at least as powerful and apparently longer lasting dangers than even being re-exposed to the addictive drug is a novel one. Still, this isn’t very surprising given the very long-lasting impact of drugs of abuse (especially stimulants like crystal meth) on learning mechanisms. In my opinion, and based on my own experience, those changes are essentially permanent and the only thing that makes an ex-user less likely to run back to pressing that drug lever when being re-triggered 10 years later is the life they’ve built, the experience they have, and the training they’ve undergone in reacting to those triggers. As you can see from the graph above, if a person runs back to the drugs and actually starts using again on that first, second, or third exposure to a trigger they are likely to start the whole cycle again, possibly making it ever more difficult to escape the next time.

Obviously preventing trigger-induced relapse should be a major strategy of addiction treatment and indeed, from CBT relapse prevention strategies to groundbreaking medications that have been shown to be effective for relapse rate reduction (like Vivitrol, Buprenorphine, Bupropion, and more), there is quite a bit of effort going exactly that way.


Yijin Yan, Kiyofumi Yamada, Atsumi Nitta and Toshitaka Nabeshima (2007). Transient drug-primed but persistent cue-induced reinstatement of extinguished methamphetamine-seeking behavior in mice. Behavioral Brain Research, 177, 261-268.