Keeping hope alive: Brain activity in vegetative state patients

Thirteen year-old Jahi McMath went into Oakland Children’s Hospital on December 9 for a tonsillectomy. Three days later she was declared brain-dead. Severe complications from the surgery resulted in cardiac arrest and the eventual tragic demise of Ms. McMath; and while neurologists and pediatricians at the hospital have declared Jahi brain-dead, her family refuses to accept the doctors’ diagnosis, fighting to keep her on life support.

This heartrending battle between hospital and family is sadly not a new one, and there is often little that can be done to compromise the two sides. However, neuroscientific research in recent years has made substantial developments in more empirically determining if there are still signs of consciousness in vegetative state patients, which can either bring hope to a desperate family, or provide stronger footing for doctors trying to do the more difficult but often more humane thing.

Can synesthesia in autism lead to savantism?

Daniel Tammet has memorized Pi to the 22,514th digit. He speaks ten different languages, including one of his own invention, and he can multiply enormous sums in his head within a matter of seconds. However, he is unable to hold down a standard 9-to-5 job, in part due to his obsessive adherence to ritual, down to the precise times he has his tea every day.

Daniel is a savantHe is also autistic.And he is a synesthete.

Do you have an addictive personality?

You’ll have to bear with me if this is a bit of a self-indulgent post, but I have some exciting news, Brain Study-ers: I’ve officially submitted my dissertation for a PhD in psychology!

In light of this – the culmination of three years of blood, sweat, tears and an exorbitant amount of caffeine – I thought I’d write this week on part of my thesis work (I promise to do my best to keep the jargon out of it!)

One of the biggest questions in addiction research is why do some people become dependent on drugs, while others are able to use in moderation? Certainly some of the risk lies in the addictive potential of the substances themselves, but still the vast majority of individuals who have used drugs never become dependent on them. This then leads to the question, is there really such a thing as an “addictive personality”, and what puts someone at a greater risk for addiction if they do choose to try drugs?

You are what you eat

Anyone who’s ever tried to cure the blues with Ben and Jerry’s knows that there is a link between our stomachs and our moods. Foods high in fat and sugar release pleasure chemicals like dopamine and opioids into our brains in much the same way that drugs do, and I’d certainly argue that french fries and a chocolate milkshake can perk up even the lousiest of days.

This brain-belly connection works in the opposite direction, too. Ever felt nauseous before giving a big presentation? Or had butterflies in your stomach on a first date? It’s this system relating feedback from your brain to your gut causing those sensations and giving you physical signals that something big is about to happen.

Inside the mind of a criminal

On Law and Order: SVU, the story stops when the bad guy is caught. The chase is over, justice is served, the credits roll and we can all sleep easier at night knowing that Detectives Benson and Stabler have successfully put another criminal behind bars.

Of course in the real world, things are never that simple.

Our criminal justice system operates on the tenets of punishment and reform. You do the crime, you do the time — and ideally you are appropriately rehabilitated after paying penance for your sins. But unfortunately it doesn’t always work that way. Recidivism rates in the U.S. have been estimated at 40-70%, with most former inmates ending up back behind bars within three years of being released.

Hearing, touching and tasting in color

I don't know about you, but to me Wednesday is sun-shiney yellow. Tuesday is hunter green, Thursday purple-ish blue and Friday a deep red. Monday is white, a blank slate and a chance for a new week, whereas Saturday is sparkly black. Sunday is gray, the depressing slouch towards the beginning of the work-week, but also a convenient mix of Saturday and Monday.

This color-word association is not a figment of my imagination or an indication that I'm going crazy, but is instead a recognized neuropsychological phenomenon called synesthesia. Synesthesia can be thought of as a crossing of the senses, where one perceptual experience simultaneously expresses another. It is estimated to occur in some form in roughly 20% of the population, with color-grapheme being the most common (1). Here, letters or numbers are experienced as taking on unique and varying shades of color. Apparently the experience that I have is also quite common, wherein units of time - such as days of the week - are also expressed in color. There are up to 60 different forms of synesthesia, including sound-color, grapheme-shape and, my personal favorite, word-taste. In this last one, words or names are experienced as different flavors in the individual's mouth. Reported palates range from buttered toast to berries and everything in between. Think of it as chewing a different flavored jellybean for every person that you know.