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December 4, 2011

Reasons You Should (not) Text and Read

Tap tap tap tap tap Bam Bam Bam *moaning* TAP TAP TAP TAP BAM BAM BA-BAM BAM BAM!

Take a page out of the Dr. Chun and Johnson book: if your roommate is having wild and kinky sex just next door, find someplace else to write your Civil War research paper. Keep in mind, this advice does extend beyond sex as a distraction and a research paper as a task. In the November 17, 2011 issue of Neuron the review Memory: Enduring Traces of Perceptual and Reflective Attention made several assertions about the aggrandizing body of literature concerned with the networks involved in and interactions between attention and memory. Research concerned with the dynamic interplay of memory and attention, currently, is sparse; until very recently, neuroscience research has focused either on attention or memory. Lately, however, researchers have found that their results about attention or memory phenomena cannot be explained without more information about how they are conjoined. The purpose of this review was to assess advances that have been made, possible applications of the results, and hypotheses to be tested in future studies.

Looking back at the poor sap listening to his roommate get it on not five feet away, while he is attempting to concentrate on how Union soldiers mistreated Confederate women and children, made me wonder if he can pay any attention to the task he is supposed to at the moment (his paper). Thankfully, I do not have to conduct a research experiment myself to see if he will succeed: this question was already answered in A general mechanism for perceptual decision-making in the human brain. The answer is simple: if the task you are concentrating on is easily accomplished then the amount of attention you need to devote to it is low (low load), and, unfortunately, distractions will impact your efforts much more than if the task is not easily accomplished. If the task is difficult, the cognitive load will be high and distractions are not as likely to detract from your concentration. I think the paper he is writing has a high cognitive load, but I also am inclined to think that the amount of sensory input he is getting, from task-irrelevant sources, is not low on the cognitive load scale and, therefore, his reflective attention on the paper will suffer.

Beyond informing us how to respond to demanding situations, this review reflects on various findings that have been made, and steps to be taken, in the exploration of the pathways implicated in memory and attention. A major discovery that was made recently, (July 2011) by a conglomeration of researchers from the Netherlands, is that, not only do attention and memory interact, memories of images, (reflective representations specifically) when retrieved, activate the same pathways as though the image was seen twice. The implications are clear: that picture in your head of your long lost lover perfectly replicates what he or she looks like in real life, right? Not quite, all that Oliver et al. discovered is that the same pathways are activated in the perception and recall of a dot or shape, which cannot be extrapolated any further.

However, that is not to say that none of the studies in this review came to similar conclusions; a few even arrived at conclusions, and observed results, that are salient to the human condition. A few of the more scintillating results include, but are not limited to, the fact that when we are not distracted the amount of and detail in which we remember information is extraordinary (implications for people with ADD/ADHD); the harder a task actually is, the more likely we are to focus on it than on distracting stimuli (studying habits); and, the ability of older adults to enhance memory (learn new things), while simultaneously being unable to distinguish false memories from true memories, and remember salient information from the past (memory loss due to aging).

The study of memory and attention interactions is new and, because of the information already gleaned from studies focused solely on attention or memory, certain questions can already be answered about their interactions. I, like the Civil War historian listening to his obnoxious roommate slam his way to a TBI, am not satisfied to simply sit around and listen (in my case about studies that have been performed, in his case sex). I am interested to learn more about attention-memory interactions and, someday, contribute to this fascinating field of study.

Now, who is ready for a pop quiz on the interactions of memory and attention?

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August 1, 2011


Apparently having sex can facilitate an increased growth of new dendritic spines in the hippocampus (so memory formation is more readily done). This occurred ?despite? an increase in corticosteroid levels. Ultimately these rats have to remember that event by growing the dendritic spines that they?ve learned facilitate reproduction with their female counterparts. I take interest in this study, because it seems to be especially geared to the short-lived and shallow attentions of a quick Google flick of the wrist. One reader might take only one short apparent fact from this article: ?sex leads to better memory? so sex is good! Let?s have more sex!? Even as I finish reading the title of this article, I find myself making this brief aside as a joke to my comrade and companion. It is important to grasp the truest motives of the Neuroscientists behind this research: that these quick memory upgrades only last the moments of time surrounding the sexual experiences, and that this must be occurring because sex is an evolutionarily advantageous engagement for a mammal (and every other animal on this planet). So, we will remember better the days preceding a more sexy night than the days surrounding a more abstinent night.
I like the motive of this article, and I like the way it catches your attention with its pertinence to our current society, but I think that a follow-up should ensue concerning the sociological components of an everyman?s sexual habit. One what days do most Americans have sex? Does this differ among people with different Socioeconomic Status?? This would be the study of an entirely different realm of science, so it is not included in the discussion of this article. Another study that is very relatable is perhaps a study of the difference in corticosterone levels of the female rats versus the male rats, in the hours surrounding their sexual encounter. Measurements of the hippocampal growth of dendritic spines after sex could also be compared between males and females. This study too, is not specific enough to be combined with the article in question. Instead, the study in question has been specifically catered to get through to the mind of the fast-stimulus-oriented reader, right down to its very title, ?Sexual Experience Promotes Adult Neurogenesis??
This article, along with many other of the front covers of science, suggests to me that this realm of the scientific field is just as short-attention?d, high-socioeconomic-status?d, American, and male-oriented as the other predominant structures in our society (i.e. entertainment, art, religion, politics, media, etc.). This is truly nothing to be ashamed of, however, since we are simply responding to the societal pressures that be ? like molecules in an organism. We may become aware of it though, with the aid of some increased responsibility for our actions that comes with some awareness thereof. Since we scientists are facing similar challenges to the Christian Right and the Mexican Immigrant and the African Indigenous, etc. etc. and we have a similar God who expects similar things of us ? cannot we empathize and thus come together on this situation.
My argument is that the writers of articles such as the one I?ve referenced should not neglect that other 90% of their society in their analyses, though they do indeed feel compelled to by the natural competitive environment of the free market. They mustn?t neglect their own hypermasculinity and quick paced neglect of other social realms than that of the white human. We must try to include the understandings of the rat, in their context, as well as every other domain of species on earth. Also, expressing the article in other languages like Spanish and French would take in consideration the other 90% of the human world (audience) in a more comprehensive and co-aware article. The articles and documentaries and speeches which do tend to bring all the data together do exist in our society, but they are much fewer in number and much less frequently emphasized in our Westernized education. We have extended the silos of scientific knowledge deep into ourselves into understandings of the neutrinos and way out into space to view the large conglomerates of space dust and dark matter. Now, many are claiming, it is time to build bridges between the silos. Perhaps this can be done via a search engine that pairs the article we just discussed with others that are similar to it. Perhaps a sentence here and there to qualify the article or film or other piece of art (as it is done more often in non-western cultures). Fundamentally, what needs to occur in order for this article and many others to become more comprehensively representative of an ideal society is the cohesion of ideas ? relating them to other ideas from other fields, (including even a fair dispersal of those of religious symbolisms and sociopolitical ideologies). Maybe the opposing parties in politics will follow our example.
Posted by      Oliver Y. at 12:01 AM MDT

July 31, 2011

Subjective Diagnosis

As the teacher speaks in front of the class, the majority of the students are attentive and taking notes. But there is one student in the classroom looking out the window daydreaming about being outside and able to run around, free, not trapped in his chair. He has attention deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD). More and more students are being diagnosed with this disorder. Why? Does it have to do with our genes, the environment? Is this just a reflection on our society always needing an answer and diagnosis for why we are different or is it the doctors wanting more money?

Currently the only way to diagnose this disorder is through a series of physiological tests and accounts from your teachers and parents. These methods are very subjective and may be leading to over diagnosis of children and overmedicating (2). These students may just need to learn discipline and learn how to motivate themselves to sit in a classroom and listen to a lecture or study for an exam. Just like many other psychological disorders the most logical answer to this is to study the differences between the brain structures of those with ADHD and those without.

In a recent study (1), the researchers were after the answer to see if there is a significant difference in the adolescent brain with ADHD with and without medication and without ADHD. The researchers wanted to determine if using an MRI of a child's brain would lead to better diagnosis of ADHD. The researchers studied the participants for ten years and took a total of four MRI's for each child. The researchers concluded that there is a significant difference in brain volume and specifically the white matter and the caudate nucleus. These two differences were seen to be developed at a young age due to genetics or environment and the growth of the brain paralleled the control participants. This means that as a child you have ADHD and do not generally develop it later in life.

According to the results even though there are differences in the anatomical brain structure, this still is not a clear answer to whether or not an MRI will be able to diagnose anyone with ADHD any time soon. The limitations to the study are the participants themselves. They are unable to keep still for the MRI and many of the images had to be thrown out because of movement. Also the lack of twin and sibling studies in the topic cause us to not be able to determine how much of the differences are die to environmental or genetic influences or if it is merely a correlation.

Similarly to other imaging discussions about the validity of the images and what they tell us we are unable to definitively say. At this point much more research needs to be done on the topic of ADHD and how brain imaging can enhance one's ability to be diagnosed with ADHD and allow the subjective tests to be replaced by a more concrete method of diagnosis.

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