The science of sleep: Part I

This post is gonna be about a passion of mine. Something I can indulge in anytime, anywhere, for any amount of time. Something I would choose over diamonds and Michelin restaurants. I now realise the punchline of this joke would have been better if the title hasn’t already disclosed that it’s gonna be around sleeping. Oh well.

Sleep, as mysterious as it is necessary, still puzzles scientists -- and they have been researching it for decades (and people have been sleeping for thousands of years). What exactly happens when we sleep? Why do we do it? Can we stop sleeping at all? What happens then? Got you curious enough? Then read on and find out how close we are to answering all of these questions.

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Autism and the brain.

Sheldon Cooper, BBC Sherlock and Abed from Community walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says “Is it gonna be a joke about media overusing the autism trope?”.
My awesome sense of humour aside, If there is a mental disorder overrepresented in the media then it’s (high-functioning) autism. The writers love themselves some genius socially awkward nerds solving unsolvable riddles and making ordinary people look adorably illogical. But how true is this stereotype? And what does autistic mean, if it’s not exactly Sheldon Cooper? Some people believe it equals the Rain Man-esque ability to count all matches in a box at one glance and others might think it means over-the top lack of social skills and having a huge bottle cap collection. Mostly, the reality is somewhere in between: autism is very broad (it’s called autistic spectrum disorder for a reason!) and no two diagnoses are the same. So let’s see what it really is and how the brain is involved.

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Wired this way: sexual orientation and gender in the brain.

Born this way? Chose this way? Despite what Westboro Baptist Church & Friends might preach there is evidence (even though pretty messy) that sexual orientation and gender identity are influenced by developmental differences in our brains. Activity, connectivity and structure of certain regions have been repeatedly shown to considerably differ between gay and straight people (insert a snarky joke about bisexual erasure) as well as cis- and transgenders.
But, as with so many things in neuroscience, it is yet not 100% clear in which way the connection goes -- did these neural differences predetermine who you like or did your experiences and behaviour gradually shaped these structures the way they are now? Still, a lot of scientists think these differences have been there there from the very beginning, influenced by hormonal or genetic factors. So let’s see, what do we know so far about how your brain (probably) tells you who to take home!

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Neuroscience methods and cool stuff you can do with it: Part Two.

Last time we talked about how to use fMRI for mind reading and what eye-tracking has to do with virtual reality; but what about methods enabling brainwave-controlled machines, you might ask? What about techniques allowing us to understand mental diseases on molecular level? (or you might not ask but I’m gonna talk about it anyway).

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Neuroscience methods and cool stuff you can do with it: Part One.

Neuroscientific methods are kind of unsung heroes of scientific journalism. Every now and then media flashes with buzzwords like “brain-controlled machines” and “mind reading” (“Scientists finally can READ your DIRTY THOUGHTS!!11”); but how exactly is it done? And while we’re at that, which methods are behind the mind-boggling futuristic projects like controlling virtual reality with just your eyes or determining whether a suspect was really present at the crime scene? Questions upon questions! (hint: you will find answers in this post).

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Lighting up the brain.

A little preamble: This week I wrote a guest post for another neuroscience blog. I talked about one of my favorite topics: optogenetics, the technique to control your neurons by shining a laser on them. Sounds like something Iron Man would do -- but is actually done by scientists in labs all over the world. Read on and enjoy!

In 1979, Nobel laureate Francis Crick mused about how wonderful it would be to find a way to control just one type of brain cells while leaving others untouched1. Twenty years later, seeing all the shortcomings of electrophysiology (low precision in targeting cells) and pharmacological manipulations (too slow in comparison to real neurotransmission), he went one step further and suggested that light might be the answer we’ve been looking for. The idea of switching neurons on and off like lightbulbs sounded both crazy and appealing, yet no one knew how to approach it. It took another six years for things to get real. Optogenetics was on its way.

Neuroplasticity: Remodel your brain!

Our brain is extraordinarily plastic. Not in the Tupperware and Barbie doll kind of way -- in the neuroscience field plasticity means the amazing ability of our brains to change and to adapt to pretty much everything that happens to us. There were times when scientists believed that once you’re out of the sweet childhood years your brain is like a dried clay pot, stuck in one form only. Yet tons of research has proved them wrong -- the brain turned out to be much more like play-doh, really. These changes can occur on very different scales: From a single neuron changing its connection to a whole cortical area shrinking or getting larger. There is plenty of factors altering the way your brain is wired including injury and stroke, as well as less tragic ones such as meditation, exercise or having piano lessons every day. As with everything in life, plasticity has two sides -- A side where your brain can reorganise itself during the after-stroke rehabilitation and the (dark) side where you are plagued by phantom pain after losing a limb. So let’s see how and what and why it all happens.

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Brain 101: Get to know your lord and master.

I'm gonna make a bold claim and say that you are your brain. Everything you think, feel and experience happens in and is possible solely because of your brain. Your consciousness arises there, your love resides there, your annoyance at the neighbour's dog barking in the night is also situated there (although many philosophers of mind would fight me on that reductionist view). So learning some basic things about our Lord Commander of the Mind Watch (sorry) doesn't seem like a bad idea to me. 

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Fear and loathing in Amsterdam or This time I went to a conference on psychedelic research

Oh, Amsterdam, the city of sex and drugs! Just kidding, there is certainly more to it than that. Like, for example, piss-drunk British teenagers coming in on these EasyJet weekend flights. Just kidding again! Amsterdam is a great city which I love dearly and just this weekend it hosted the third Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research. So I guess you can say, I came to Amsterdam for drugs. Psilocybin, MDMA, LSD, ayahuasca, mescaline, ibogaine -- everything was covered. It was great seeing how many research groups are investing their efforts in what can be called the psychedelic Renaissance and how many non-scientists were there to gain some knowledge about these often still stigmatised drugs.

So here you go, your fresh fix of psychedelic research!

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