“Complaining Shrinks the Hippocampus” – the study that doesn’t exist

gray739-emphasizing-hippocampus

The “complaining is bad for your brain” trope is making the rounds again. In How Complaining Rewires Your Brain For Negativity, Dr. Travis Bradberry (“Author of #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and president of TalentSmart, world’s leading provider of emotional intelligence”) claims:

Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely. Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you. Complaining becomes your default behavior, which changes how people perceive you.

And here’s the kicker: complaining damages other areas of your brain as well. Research from Stanford University has shown that complaining shrinks the hippocampus—an area of the brain that’s critical to problem solving and intelligent thought. Damage to the hippocampus is scary, especially when you consider that it’s one of the primary brain areas destroyed by Alzheimer’s.

What is this compelling research from Stanford? A link to an article in Fast Company, Why Complaining May Be Dangerous To Your Health (1/12/15):

A half hour of complaining every day physically damages a person’s brain, according to research from Stanford University. Whether you’re the one griping or you’re the one listening, exposure to negativity peels back neurons in the hippocampus—the part of the brain used for problem solving and cognitive function. Over time, complaining becomes a habit. If you’re surrounded by complainers, then you’re more likely become one.

The research on “peeling back neurons in the hippocampus” is a link to a non-existent article in iaap-hq.org. Pulling up the extinct page in archive.org yields this gem, Complaining Hurts Your Brain (3/27/14):

Scientific research from Stanford’s medical school revealed that exposure to 30 minutes of negativity every day (including negative news on TV) can physically damage the brain. It damages the neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain used for problem solving and cognitive functioning. This is significant because research also shows that in Alzheimer’s disease, the hippocampus is one of the first regions of the brain to suffer damage.

Now let’s look for a study where the participants had their brains scanned, watched 30 minutes of negative news every day for three months, then had their brains scanned again. For good measure, we should assign half of the participants to a control condition, where they are forbidden to watch negative news for three months. Then we can compare hippocampal volumes in the two groups.

You know where this is going. The peeling hippocampus study does not exist. It’s completely fictional.

Further Googling pulls up a 2012 article from the Community Corner section of the Carlsbad Patch, Stress and Negativity May Change Size and Function of the Brain:

Robert Sapolsky is a professor and researcher in the field of stress and the effect it has on health. For the past three decades Sapolsky has been studying how the mind and body handle stress. In an interview with Stanford Report, he said:

It’s becoming clear that in the hippocampus, the part of the brain most susceptible to stress hormones, you see atrophy in people with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression. … There’s a ton of very exciting, very contentious work as to whether stress is causing that part of the brain to atrophy, and if so, is it reversible. Or does having a small hippocampus make you more vulnerable to stress-related traumas? There’s evidence for both sides.

Ah ha, Robert Sapolsky, a famous professor at Stanford. He’s best known for his research on the negative effects of stress in baboons, who generally do not watch TV, neither in the wild nor in captivity. Here’s a 2000 review article on Glucocorticoids and Hippocampal Atrophy in Neuropsychiatric Disorders (cited over 1,000 times):

An extensive literature stretching back decades has shown that prolonged stress or prolonged exposure to glucocorticoids—the adrenal steroids secreted during stress—can have adverse effects on the rodent hippocampus.

Yes indeed, the invasive studies that examine actual neurons in the hippocampus are in rodents.

Sapolsky continues:

More recent findings suggest a similar phenomenon in the human hippocampus associated with many neuropsychiatric disorders. This review examines the evidence for hippocampal atrophy in (1) Cushing syndrome, which is characterized by a pathologic oversecretion of glucocorticoids; (2) episodes of repeated and severe major depression, which is often associated with hypersecretion of glucocorticoids; and (3) posttraumatic stress disorder. Key questions that will be examined include whether the hippocampal atrophy arises from the neuropsychiatric disorder, or precedes and predisposes toward it…

Notice that both here and in his 2007 Stanford News quote above, he questions the direction of causality.

So where did the complaining and negative news come from? The Carlsbad Patch article 1 also linked to Listening to Complainers Is Bad for Your Brain (8/12/12):

Do you hate it when people complain? It turns out there’s a good reason: Listening to too much complaining is bad for your brain in multiple ways, according to Trevor Blake, a serial entrepreneur and author of Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life. In the book, he describes how neuroscientists have learned to measure brain activity when faced with various stimuli, including a long gripe session.

“The brain works more like a muscle than we thought,” Blake says. “So if you’re pinned in a corner for too long listening to someone being negative, you’re more likely to behave that way as well.”

Even worse, being exposed to too much complaining can actually make you dumb. Research shows that exposure to 30 minutes or more of negativity–including viewing such material on TV–actually peels away neurons in the brain’s hippocampus. “That’s the part of your brain you need for problem solving,” he says. “Basically, it turns your brain to mush.”

Ah ha, so we can finally blame serial entrepreneur Trevor Blake, who made up the whole thing. Or at the very least, extrapolated wildly from studies in monkeys and rodents. From Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life:

like-watching-fearful-news

[so Mr. Blake actually used the more accurate “pruning back” not “peeling back”]

What about complainers? 2

chronic-complainers

Oh no!! This blog post is increasing the rate of cell death in my hippocampus!

But think about it… reading Donald J. Trump‘s toxic and negative (and horrifying) tweets is raising our anxiety. Does complaining about them make it any worse?

 

link to HuffPo via Neuroskeptic

 

Footnotes

1 The Carlsbad Patch article by is actually the best of the lot.

2 The unclear origins of this claim were also discussed by the skeptics at Stack Exchange.

Here Comes Optomom!

Optogenetic manipulation in a naïve female mouse induces maternal behavior in response to pup distress calls (Marlin et al. 2015).

Video 6: Pup retrieval by Oxt-IRES-Cre virgin female after optical stimulation of left primary auditory cortex (Marlin et al. 2015).

One of the really amazing things is that neural activity in response to the distress cries is left lateralized in the auditory cortex. In a mouse!

This is markedly similar to the asymmetry of speech processing in human temporal lobe43, 44, and supports earlier behavioural observations of auditory lateralization in maternal mice19.

A number of separate experiments showed that the hypothalamic hormone oxytocin was a key player in modulating neural activity and behavioral responses to the pup’s calls, with the requisite demonstrations of maternal behavior being turned on and off at the will of the investigators.

An extensive literature (dating back to the 1940s-50s) has already established that oxytocin plays a role in promoting maternal behavior, so that part did not come as a surprise (e.g., Pedersen et al., 1982). But modern optogenetic methods provide more precise control of specific neuron populations (and more dramatic videos).

Media outlets: do not extrapolate from this mouse study to potential interventions in neglectful human mothers. There are no implants for bad moms!

 

Reference

Marlin, B., Mitre, M., D’amour, J., Chao, M., & Froemke, R. (2015). Oxytocin enables maternal behaviour by balancing cortical inhibition. Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature14402

I’m a Lumberjack

Image

The eighth and final season of the hit series Dexter took a scientific look at serial killers. Dr. Evelyn Vogel, a neuropsychiatrist who wrote the definitive book on the brains of psychopaths, consulted with Miami Metro Homicide on a series of unusual cases. The killer would saw open the skull and scoop out the “empathetic” part of the brain (the anterior insula) with a melon baller. The most brutal of these murders occurred while the victim was alive and awake.

Dr. Vogel was ultimately killed by the “Brain Surgeon” who turned out to be her own psychopathic son (presumed dead for over 25 years; he faked his death by starting a fire in the asylum where he was housed).

But now the show has ended in a most unsatisfying way. The reasons for this are succinctly captured in the tweet below. Our favorite serial killer lives on, but in an unexpectedly isolated and self-punishing way after (you guessed it) faking his own death and moving far away from his son and girlfriend.

In an interview, Jennifer Carpenter, the actress who played Dexter’s sister Deb, had this to say about the end of the series (where her character dies due to a horrible mistake in her brother’s judgment):

“I’m picturing an older model television where you have to get up to turn the TV off and then it slips into that tiny little dot until it’s all gone — that’s what I feel like is happening to me.”

It’s a great interview from an actress who got better and better as the series progressed. I always thought of Deb as the most traumatized woman on television.

Finally, here’s an alternate ending from an executive producer who left the show after four seasons:

“In the very last scene of the series,” Philips explained, “Dexter wakes up. And everybody is going to think, ‘Oh, it was a dream.’ And then the camera pulls back and back and back and then we realize, ‘No, it’s not a dream.’ Dexter’s opening his eyes and he’s on the execution table at the Florida Penitentiary. They’re just starting to administer the drugs and he looks out through the window to the observation gallery.

“And in the gallery are all the people that Dexter killed—including the Trinity Killer and the Ice Truck Killer (his brother Rudy), LaGuerta who he was responsible killing, Doakes who he’s arguably responsible for, Rita, who he’s arguably responsible for, Lila. All the big deaths, and also whoever the weekly episodic kills were. They are all there.

“That’s what I envisioned for the ending of Dexter. That everything we’ve seen over the past eight seasons has happened in the several seconds from the time they start Dexter’s execution to the time they finish the execution and he dies.  Literally, his life flashed before his eyes as he was about to die. I think it would have been a great, epic, very satisfying conclusion.”

Overcoming Consumerism Through Neuroscience

We’ve to widen the knowledge
of how our brain works to understand
Or nothing will, will ever change

–Stereolab, Margerine Melodie

stereolab-margerine-eclipse

The French pop / post-Krautrock English band Stereolab are known for their vintage synthesizers and socially conscious lyrics. Margerine Melodie, from their 2004 album Margerine Eclipse, suggests that neuroscience research will help us overcome a hyper-competitive world of struggle and domination.

Our brain makes us act
behave and react
A pulsion that drives us to stay alive

Need to satisfy our fundamental needs
The nervous system enables that drive

Through consumerism, escape and struggle
As well as inhibition

All these mechanisms that preserve balance
Biological well being

Seems that until now we have used our brain
Just to dominate, just to dominate

–Stereolab, Margerine Melodie

Functional MRI: The Fast Track to Fame and Fortune

Stahl_says_the_money_is_in_the_front_of_the_brain

The seductive allure of fMRI was initially revealed by the New York Times in 2000. According to Dr. Christopher Moore, the method is easier than 1, 2, 3! And your papers will write themselves:

The technology is seductively easy to use, said Dr. Christopher Moore, a postdoctoral fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who is carrying out a number of imaging studies. ”You can think of an idea, throw five friends into the scanner overnight and write up your results the next day. People don’t have to think very hard about what they’re doing.”

-from Just What’s Going On Inside That Head of Yours?
 By  SANDRA BLAKESLEE
 Published: March 14, 2000

-image from DLPFC Rap

 

Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Does Not Increase Suicide Risk in Veterans with PTSD

The New York Times recently claimed that PTSD “causes” chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in U.S. military veterans. A new paper questions whether mTBI actually exacerbates the risk of suicide in this population. This is important, because the more direct cause of CTE is likely to be repeated concussions. If these are not increasing suicide risk, then it doesn’t seem that we should be expecting an epidemic of CTE in veterans, after all.

 

Does a history of mild traumatic brain injury increase suicide risk in veterans with PTSD?

Barnes SM, Walter KH, Chard KM.
Rehabil Psychol. 2012 Feb;57(1):18-26.

Abstract

OBJECTIVE:

Research shows that posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) independently increase suicide risk; however, scant research has investigated whether mTBI increases suicide risk above and beyond the risk associated with PTSD alone.

DESIGN:

The current research compared suicide risk factors among a matched sample of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) military personnel and veterans with PTSD alone or PTSD and a history of an mTBI.

RESULTS:

Differences in the assessed risk factors were small and suggest that if PTSD and mTBI are associated with elevations in suicide risk relative to PTSD alone, the added risk is likely mediated or confounded by PTSD symptom severity.

CONCLUSION:

This finding highlights the importance of screening and treating military personnel and veterans for PTSD. Future explication of the impact of TBI-related impairments on suicide risk will be critical as we strive to ensure safety and optimize care for our military personnel and veterans.

via Dr. Romeo Vitelli at Providentia

Your Brain in 1492 Pieces

The_human_brain_in1492_pieces

The Human Brain in 1492 Pieces

Structure, Vasculature, and Tracts

$349.99

 

He would look down and laugh at the thought of a crash
Hear the engine moan disintegrate and move on…
Some day look down and see me still trying to escape
 

-Scrawl

In a million pieces the chance of having certain moments increases

-Scrawl, Story Musgrave

 

Discover the New World of Neuroanatomy!

“With this incredible software you hold the future in your hands.”–Dr. Anne G. Osborn

“A wonderful product representing the future of brain atlases. Interactive, accurate, and easy to use, this atlas sets a new standard in both neuroeducation and operative planning.”–Dr. Albert L. Rhoton, Jr.

Synthesizing science and art, The Human Brain in 1492 Pieces: Structure, Vasculature, and Tracts will allow clinicians, educators, and researchers in neuroradiology, neurosurgery, neurology, or neuroscience to explore, understand, and teach the intricacies of the human brain.