The Most Important Lesson From 83,000 Brain Scans

Daniel Amen is an American psychiatrist and brain disorder specialist who is a strong advocate of utilizing single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) as a diagnostic tool for better identifying and treating mental illnesses. In the following TED Talk, he discusses his research involving the use of SPECT (including several touching success stories resulting from its application) and highlights its importance in improving the efficacy of psychiatric treatment.

Personally, I found Amen’s points to be compelling and reasonable. The growing prominence of psychiatric problems in our society, coupled with issues of inaccurate diagnosis and inadequate treatment, makes his argument for the wider use of SPECT seem self-evidently true.

However, after doing some research, I dug up quite a lot serious skepticism and criticism towards Amen’s claims, as well as his professional endeavors (apparently, he hawks a lot of pseudoscience while making hefty profits from his private practice). Much of the controversy and debate is cited and expanded upon in this article from Science Based Medicine, a source I deeply trust.

Personally, I remain undecided, as I just came across Amen and his subsequent detractors. I will have to look into these matters more deeply when I have the time, but I invite you all to see the video, read the criticism, and decide for yourselves. As always, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts here. Thanks for reading.

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Gym workouts and sunbathing do more for your brain than crosswords and Mozart

Eupraxsophy:

This could certainly explain why my mind feels sharper on days or weeks when I workout more regularly. As it has long been observed, the health of mind, body, and spirit (even in the secular sense of mood and attitude) are inextricably intertwined.

Originally posted on Quartz:

Doing puzzles and listening to classical music might improve your concentration momentarily, but they don’t actually make you any smarter. That is, they don’t improve your long-term brain function, according to The Economist’s interview of Nicholas Spitzer, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California and editor-in-chief of BrainFacts.org.

“Let me dispel a brain development myth,” Spitzer told The Economist. “Many people think classical music is going to enhance brain function (the Mozart effect) or playing particular games sharpens one’s cognitive function. These theories have been looked at in detail and they don’t stand up. It is disappointing in a way, but what we have learned is that exercise is the key thing for brain function.”

By exercise, he means general activity and—more importantly—exposure to sunlight. In a recent study (paywall), he found that rats produced different brain-altering chemicals based on environmental factors. He thinks that our…

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The Magic of Music Therapy

There can be little doubt that music has a remarkable impact on the human mind, not only in terms of emotion and feeling, but even with regards to mental health. The Guardian offers a glimpse into the benefits of music therapy, which is catching on as a treatment for people suffering dementia and other mental afflictions. It begins with the case of Vera and Jack Burrows.

Five and a half years into their very happy marriage, Jack had a stroke while roasting a chicken, and has never returned home. Ever since he’s been living in Station House care home in Crewe. Now 86, he’s lost his speech and has increasing memory problems, but his bawdy sense of humour is very much intact.

Vera, a very glamorous 84 with turquoise eye shadow and a cloud of blond hair, had accompanied Jack to a special music session at the care home run by the music therapist Greg Hanford, director of MusAbility, and musicians from the Manchester Camerata chamber orchestra.

Overseen by Manchester University, it is part of a 10-week pilot project called Music in Mind, funded by Care UK, which runs 123 residential homes for elderly people. The aim is to find out if classical music can improve communication and interaction and reduce agitation for people in the UK living with dementia – estimated to number just over 800,000 and set to rise rapidly as the population ages.

The Crewe project is the fourth Music in Mind pilot. An assessment of the first three, by the Manchester-based thin-ktank New Economy, found that some participants no longer had to be medicated after taking part. Carers reported reduced agitation, better moods and improved posture; residents who had been slumped in their chairs raised their heads to take an active role.

“The power of music therapy enables, excites, enthuses, entertains,” one musician told New Economy. “It’s like opening the window of a stuffy room and allowing scented fresh air to waft in, lifting the spirits, changing the nature of the room.”

Pretty touching stuff, to say the least. Whether or not music therapy has any clear physiological impact, the fact that it can improve moods, less anxieties, and encourage more activity makes this approach very promising.

What do you think?

The Amazing Language of Music

If you’re like me, you’ve had many a bad episode in life alleviated by music. Whether you’re stressed, sad, romantic, or energetic, there seems to be the right melody out there to help mitigate (or if need be, amplify) your mood. Similarly, there’s always the right song, band, or genre to listen to for a particular circumstance, from studying to work to exercise. Music serves as an incredibly versatile form of therapy, consolation, palliative, and more.

Now several studies have confirmed what many of us have long experienced: music has an amazing impact on our mood, cognition, and overall well-being. In fact, it stimulates and conveys ideas no differently than any spoken language, as concluded by a recent study reported in PolicyMic:

Utilizing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a 2008 study focused on observing the brain responses of musicians while they played music, while a 2013 study looked at the fMRI recorded brain activity of listeners as music was played. Taken together, they paint a powerful portrait of why exactly music influences us the way it does. It comes down to one simple truth: Music actually is a special kind of language, one that works on our emotions rather than our reason.

One needn’t look to closely to notice the sheer complexity of musical compositions, which look very much like a written script onto themselves. In fact, as a more detailed account of the study reveals:

In 2008, Dr. Charles Limb, an otolaryngologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, put musicians into an MRI with an instrument and told them to play both memorized and improvised pieces of music. When the musician improvised, another musician was put in the control room to play along. The findings were striking: When the two musicians played together, their brains responded exactly as they do during spoken conversation, with one difference. The regions that generally process the meaning of language shut down — the music was simply a communication impulse in structure and intent.

But what, it gets more interesting!

Music acts on the brain of a listener as if a recorded musician were speaking to you too. The 2013 study by researchers from Finland, the UK and Denmark went even further. They exposed subjects to different types of music, ranging from the Beatles’ epic Abbey Road medley to a modern rendition of an Argentinian tango. The takeaway: The human brain reacts differently to different types of music, eliciting very specific emotional, physical and behavioral responses, almost as if music were a map, communicating emotions to a brain even better than words. As in conversation, different inputs stimulate nearly all of the brain.

The study found something even more striking, though. It isn’t just music in general that affects us: Every genre and every song is its own map to a unique combination of feelings and thoughts. As this video recording of an fMRI of a brain responding to tango music shows, our reactions to music can be profound.

This is precisely why quiet songs tend to make you more reflective or daydreamy, why upbeat, poppy songs energize you and make you want to dance, and why aggressive or fast-paced songs may inspire aggressive feelings or help drive the intensity of a workout. Music — like the words, tones, and ideas of any other spoken language — elicits a visceral reaction. And like the vagaries of language, different music has different effects on different people.

But perhaps the palpable finding is that music is as vital to our well-being as social interaction.

different study at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University suggests that listening to music “can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving,” even stimulating dopamine release in the brain — a chemical affiliated strongly with pleasure, reward and even addiction. Like speaking with a dear friend or hearing something sweet from someone you love, music is a conversation, one the brains of listeners and players alike need to keep having.

As someone whose recurring bouts of depression and anxiety are regularly kept in check by music and companionship alike, I can certainly vouch for this conclusion.

Books and Meaningful Activities Lead to Happy Lives

As a lifelong bibliophile and culture aficionado, I didn’t need any scientific verification that reading, listening to music, visiting art galleries, and engaging in other forms of cultural immersion were good for my heart and soul. Of course, it never hurts to have some sort of research back these things up, so I was pleased, if not unsurprising, with the following report from NPR:

Going to the library gives people the same kick as getting a raise does — a £1,359 ($ 2,282) raise, to be exact — according to a study commissioned by the U.K.’s Department for Culture, Media & Sport. The study, which looks at the ways “cultural engagement” affects overall well-being, concluded that a significant association was found between frequent library use and reported well-being. The same was true of dancing, swimming and going to plays. The study notes that “causal direction needs to be considered further” — that is, it’s hard to tell whether happy people go to the library, or going to the library makes people happy. But either way, the immortal words of Arthur the Aardvark ring true: “Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card!”

Well, this certainly explains why I legitimately get happy when I go to a library or bookstore, or even when I’m in my room surrounded by my books. I could never explain how or why I’d be happy exactly; I would just feel an ineffable and natural sense of calm and contentment, as if I were engaging in something therapeutic — which indeed, seems to be what these activities are. I feel a similar sensation when I’m gardening, tidying up my living space, or going to a local culture festival. 

This finding sort of coincides with another study I came across recently that came to a similar conclusion: people who regularly engage in meaningful activities — ranging from exercise and sports to gardening and art — tend to feel better in the long run, especially if they’re helping people along the way.

For the study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers followed a group of 39 teenagers over the course of one year to see whether the way their brains reacted to either eudaimonic or hedonic rewards correlated with how depressed they felt over time.

First, the subjects underwent an fMRI while making a decision about whether to keep money for themselves (a hedonic reward) or to donate it to their families (eudaimonic). They also played a game to determine if they were willing to take risks for the possibility of a greater financial reward (hedonic).

The subjects then filled out a self-report questionnaire of depressive symptoms during the initial scan, and again a year later.

It turned out the teens who had the greatest brain response to the generous, family-donation financial decision had the greatest declines in depressive symptoms over time. And those who got a boost from the risk-taking game were more likely to have an increase in depression. The types of rewards the teens responded to, it seems, changed their behavior in ways that altered their overall well-being.

“For example,” the authors write, “adolescents who show heightened activation in the ventral striatum during eudaimonic decisions likely experience a sense of reward from supporting their family and may therefore show increases in the time they spend helping their family.”

It’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean parents can inoculate their teens against depression by forcing them to seek happiness through volunteering. But it could be that teens who already do that kind of thing because it really does lift their spirits are likely to have that lift stick with them.

“Taken together, our findings suggest that well-being may depend on attending to higher values related to family, culture, and morality, rather than to immediate, selfish pleasure,” the authors write.

Taken together, these findings — which coincide with plenty of anecdotal and philosophical observations as well — make clear that doing something meaningful and stimulating is beneficial to mental health. That may seem somewhat obvious, but it’s easy to underestimate how seemingly mundane activities and tasks could help enrich our lives to some degree or another. While results may vary, and such things are far from substitutes for psychiatric care, it never hurts to explore the world around us and find interests and activities that could make us feel better. 

 

 

 

How Americans Die

Bloomberg.com has posted a fascinating compilation of visual data that explores the changes in health, lifestyle, and mortality for Americans between 1970 and 2010. Aside from satiating my morbid curiosity, these data also make it possible to learn a lot about our society and how it’s changed based on how we die.

For example, most people are now dying from suicide, drug abuse, and natural causes rather than infectious diseases, demonstrating that we’re living long enough to be claimed by age-related ailments, as well as raising questions about the impact of modern living on mental health.

Since all the charts and graphs are interactive, I can’t embed them here, but I highly recommend you give them a look by clicking here.

 

 

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Gratitude Is the New Willpower

Harvard Business Review:

A fascinating study that shows another benefit to being grateful for one’s good fortune: restraint and willpower.

Originally posted on HBR Blog Network - Harvard Business Review:

Patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to building capital. But as with most virtues, it’s not always easy to muster, since it usually requires resisting temptations for gratification on the sooner side. Should you put the extra $1,000 earned this month in your retirement savings or use it to buy a new suit? Should you approve money from the firm’s “rainy-day” fund to cover travel for senior executives (yourself included) to a lavish conference this summer or let it continue to accrue as a buffer for future challenges? Such decisions – a type referred to by economists as intertemporal choices – are characterized by options that offer different rewards as time unfolds. That is, they contrast smaller pleasures or gains now with larger pleasures or gains later.

Almost everyone – from individual investors to CFOs of large corporations – would probably agree that the best way to choose between…

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Map: U.S. Life Expectancy By State

Although the average American is living an impressive 30 years longer than 100 years ago — about 79.8 — by global standards, the U.S. still remains middle-of-the-road despite its great wealth; typically, we’re in the mid-thirties, usually along the same level as Cuba, Chile, or Costa Rica. Furthermore, life expectancy varies wildly from state to state, as the following map from The Atlantic clearly shows:

Life expectancy by state compared to closest matching country.

There’s profound variation by state, from a low of 75 years in Mississippi to a high of 81.3 in Hawaii. Mostly, we resemble tiny, equatorial hamlets like Kuwait and Barbados. At our worst, we look more like Malaysia or Oman, and at our best, like the United Kingdom. No state approaches the life expectancies of most European countries or some Asian ones. Icelandic people can expect to live a long 83.3 years, and that’s nothing compared to the Japanese, who live well beyond 84.

Life expectancy can be causal, a factor of diet, environment, medical care, and education. But it can also be recursive: People who are chronically sick are less likely to become wealthy, and thus less likely to live in affluent areas and have access to the great doctors and Whole-Foods kale that would have helped them live longer.

It’s worth noting that the life expectancy for certain groups within the U.S. can be much higher—or lower—than the norm. The life expectancy for African Americans is, on average, 3.8 years shorter than that of whites. Detroit has a life expectancy of just 77.6 years, but that city’s Asian Americans can expect to live 89.3 years.

But overall, the map reflects what we’d expect: People in southern states, which generally have lower incomes and higher obesity rates, tend to die sooner, and healthier, richer states tend to foster longevity.

It’s also worth adding that overall, the U.S. is far less healthy and long-lived than it should be, even when you adjust for wealth, race, and other factors (e.g. young Americans are less healthy than young people in other developed countries, rich people are typically less healthy than other rich non-Americans, etc).

Looking to Get Healthy? Try an Indigenous Diet

While there’s much that can be learned from indigenous peoples — particularly when it comes to herbal medicine and safeguarding the environment — nutrition was never something I had personally considered, until I came across this article from The Guardian. It reports on recent research that suggests that the centuries-old diets of indigenous groups from around the world is nutritionally superior to modern food, which consists of far more processing, refined fats and oils, and simple carbohydrates.

Many traditional and non-processed foods consumed by rural communities, such as millet and caribou, are nutrient-dense and offer healthy fatty acids, micronutrients and cleansing properties widely lacking in diets popular in high- and middle-income countries, say experts.

Indigenous diets worldwide – from forest foods such as roots and tubers in regions of eastern India to coldwater fish, caribou and seals in northern Canada – are varied, suited to local environments, and can counter malnutrition and disease.

“For many tribal and indigenous peoples, their food systems are complex, self-sufficient and deliver a very broad-based, nutritionally diverse diet,” says Jo Woodman, a senior researcher and campaigner at Survival International, a UK-based indigenous advocacy organisation.

Unfortunately, a combination of sociocultural marginalization, assimilation into modern society, and pressures by the global food market have caused indigenous peoples from the Americas to Asia to suffer from the same chronic health problems that bedevil most people in the developed world; in the process, they’re also losing the knowledge and practices that contributed to the relative healthiness of their diets.

“There is a deep irony in the fact that many dietitians are advocating [traditional and indigenous foods and diets] and yet [the] modern [western] diet is what is being pushed on tribal peoples around the world, with devastating results,” Woodman says.

“We have lost our primary relationship with our world around us,” says Dr Martin Reinhardt, assistant professor of Native American studies at Northern Michigan University.

Native American elders historically planned seven generations ahead when creating food systems, teaching each generation that it was their responsibility to ensure the survival of the seventh, says Reinhardt, an Anishinaabe Ojibway citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Native American people in Michigan state. They did this by hunting and gathering only what they needed, conserving resources such as wood and water, and protecting food biodiversity.

But when Native Americans were forced to assimilate, historical access to this nutritional knowledge was lost, Reinhardt points out. According to thespecial diabetes programme for Indians, run by the US federal government’s Indian health service , the 566 registered indigenous peoples in the US have a diabetes rate nine times higher than the national average.

Similarly, rates of the disease among First Nations and Inuit groups in Canada are up to five times higher than the countrywide average, according to the government’s federal health department.

In Laos, northern highland minorities such as the Yawa, Htin and Khmu traditionally eat forest-based diets, including wild pigs, birds, bamboo shoots, banana flowers and yams rich in vitamin C. But in recent decades the Laos government has moved thousands of people from the highlands to towns for economic reasons, documented in a 2012 report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

I encourage you to read the whole article, as it captures the complex intersection of various global issues, including the pressures of feeding a growing population (particularly one with more resources to consume more food), the environmental degradation brought about by the demand for grain (which is also crowding out other diverse and healthier food sources), and the continued destruction of traditional rural communities with whom we’re losing valuable knowledge.

U.S. Among the Sickest of Developed Nations

According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 75 percent of healthcare spending — the highest in the world — goes toward aiding people with chronic conditions. In fact, almost half of American adults had at least one chronic condition as 2005.

Chronic conditions — a category that includes everything from autoimmune diseases like arthritis and lupus, to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes — are not only the number one cause of death in the U.S., they’re compromising Americans’ quality of life and disabling people for long periods of time. For example, arthritis affects 20 percent of adults, and is the most common cause of disability in America. Those afflicted are projected to increase from 46 million to 67 million by 2030, and 25 million of these individuals will have limited activity as a result.

Not only are Americans as a whole getting sicker, but so are young people. A 2013 report by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (NAC/IOM) found that “For many years, Americans have been dying at younger ages than people in almost all other high income countries.” Their data showed that women are less likely to live to age 50 if they’re born in the United States than other high income countries; in the 1980s, the U.S. was in the middle-range for survival of women to age 50 pack, but since then, not only has the U.S. fallen down in the ranking, they’ve fallen off the chart.

Note that even when adjusting for race and socioeconomic status, the results are the same: rich Americans die earlier than rich people in other countries, college-educated people die earlier than college-educated people in other countries, and Americans as a whole are sicker and shorter-lived than comparable developed nations.

In fact, a recent report by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, says that “in some U.S. counties… life expectancies are on par with countries in North Africa and Southeast Asia.”

To learn more about this issue, and some of the complex and multidimensional factors behind it, click here.