March 15, 2016

Einstein event delves into the inner workings of the brain

TED-style talks covered topics from consciousness to the aging brain to anxiety

Science Brain
03142016_brain_istock iLexx/iStock.com

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What makes the brain tick?

That was the question on the minds of more than 200 people gathered last Thursday at Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute for "Brain Waves," part of Einstein Healthcare Network's year-long 150th anniversary celebration.

The event featured fascinating TED-style talks about the human brain – from consciousness to the aging brain to anxiety – by a researcher, a neuropsychologist and a national news anchor.

As the most complex part of the human body, the brain's intricacies and capabilities are still being uncovered by research in neuroscience and psychology. Through concise 10-minute talks, “Brain Waves” highlighted the findings of Einstein researchers and others in their joint quest to discover the inner workings of this roughly three-pound organ. They discussed new ways to build up the brain's resilience to old age, the difficulty of detecting consciousness in brain-injured patients, and how having a panic attack on national television led one to find peace.

ARE YOU AWAKE? UNDERSTANDING CONSCIOUSNESS

Imagine that you've had a severe brain injury. You gradually regain consciousness in the hospital after being comatose, but you realize with horror that you can't communicate with anyone around you. Doctors refer to you as being in an unconscious state, and you have no way to tell them otherwise.

“Consciousness is fundamental to our self-concept as human beings, and it's critical for ethical decisions like end-of-life care and withdrawal of feeding and nutrition.” – John Whyte of Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute

John Whyte, director of Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute and an expert on consciousness, started off his talk with this harrowing depiction of being a prisoner in one's own body. Clinicians misjudge a patient's state of consciousness about 40 percent of the time — either imagining glimmers of life in an unconscious individual, or missing signs of consciousness in those who are actually awake.

“Much of my clinical work and a portion of my research focuses on the fascinating and challenging problem of determining an individual's state of consciousness — and getting it right is important,” said Whyte. “Consciousness is fundamental to our self-concept as human beings, and it's critical for ethical decisions like end-of-life care and withdrawal of feeding and nutrition.”

There is still no way to directly see consciousness, but magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been used recently to detect brain activation patterns in patients that closely resemble those of awake controls. Another method includes following finger or eye movements in response to yes-no questions, although sometimes random movements can be mistaken for consciousness.

THE AGING BRAIN TOOLBOX

Aging is inevitable, and we can notice the signs of getting older through our bodies and minds. We start to have more cardiovascular issues, along with changes in pulmonary and renal function. Mentally, we're more likely to gloss over details, our cognitive processing slows down, and memories seem to fade faster.

“There is no computer program or app that will help you stay healthy as you age. What helps you stay healthy as you age is engagement: reading, having a conversation, a book club, or taking a class.” – Madeline DiPasquale of MossRehab's Drucker Brain Injury Center

“I think it becomes very difficult to begin to think about all of those changes, and what is normal and what is pathological or abnormal,” said Madeline DiPasquale, a clinical neuropsychologist and Supervisor of Ambulatory Programs at MossRehab's Drucker Brain Injury Center. “It's a scary topic for a lot of people.”

Her talk focused on concrete, evidence-based actions that can help us age better. Since body health and brain health are closely related, DiPasquale emphasized taking good care of both by engaging in a physical activity, a cognitive activity, and a social activity every day. All three have been associated with healthy aging in a number of research studies, so choose activities you enjoy in order to keep the habit ongoing.

“There is no computer program or app that will help you stay healthy as you age,” she said. “What helps you stay healthy as you age is engagement: reading, having a conversation, a book club, or taking a class.”

While declines in memory and cognitive processing speed are normal, drastic changes in mood, hygiene, or personality can signal something more pathological. Behavior always tells a story, said DiPasquale, and these types of indicators should raise a red flag.

10% HAPPIER

In 2004, ABC news anchor Dan Harris suffered a panic attack on live television while working for "Good Morning America." Halfway through the six stories he was supposed to read, Harris began to get flustered and abruptly bailed mid-newscast. As a “huge masochist,” he found out later the exact number of people that happened to be watching at the time of his freak-out: a whopping 5.019 million viewers.

“The whole game is to notice when you become distracted, maybe make a note of it, and start again. You're going to have to do that again and again and again — and every time you do it, it's like a bicep curl for your brain.” – Dan Harris, ABC News anchor, on meditation

The incident, which left him humiliated, prompted a search for answers on how to quiet the voice in his head. Eventually, after interviewing various self-help gurus and religious figures, Harris discovered mindfulness meditation.

“I, in no way, foresaw that meditation was going to be in my future,” said Harris, the New York Times best-selling author of "10% Happier," who also acted as moderator for the event. “If you had told me several years ago that this was going to be my thing, I would have coughed my beer up through my nose.”

Harris used personal stories, humor and research findings to describe his eventual adoption of meditation as an effective way to quell his anxiety. Health benefits of meditation include lower blood pressure, a boost to the immune system and a decrease in stress hormones. Neuroscientists have even used MRIs to scan the brains of people who learned meditation for eight weeks, finding growth in areas linked to self-awareness and compassion and losses in the part of the brain associated with stress.

As a result of meditation, Harris noticed an improved ability to focus and greater control of his racing thoughts or emotions. The best part is that mindfulness meditation doesn't require fancy equipment, religious beliefs, or even an expensive class. You simply sit, close your eyes, focus on your breath.

“The whole game is to notice when you become distracted, maybe make a note of it, and start again,” he said. “You're going to have to do that again and again and again — and every time you do it, it's like a bicep curl for your brain.”