April 2014
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Caffeine’s Effect on the Brain by Lee Stanko

David DiSalvo’s article “What Caffeine Really Does to Your Brain” in the August 2012 issue of Psychology Today, discusses how caffeine “plays” the ultimate mimic  character of the inhibitory neurotransmitter adenosine. Adenosine is produced by neurons throughout the day and as they fire, and as more of it is produced, the more your nervous system ratchets down. Your nervous system monitors adenosine levels through receptors, particularly the A1 receptor that is found in your brain and throughout your body.

As the chemical passes through the receptors, your adenosine level increases until your nervous system balances it by “casting a spell” and putting you to sleep. Caffeine’s trick is to mimic adenosine’s shape and size, and enter the receptors without activating them. The caffeine treat occurs when the receptors are then effectively blocked (in clinical terms, caffeine is an antagonist of the A1 adenosine receptor). This is important not only because by blocking the receptors caffeine disrupts the nervous system’s monitoring of the adenosine level, but also because of the characters  who “appear” as this is happening. Both dopamine and glutamate, the brain’s stimulants neurotransmitters, are freer to do their magical stimulating work with the adenosine levels on hold, and that’s the effect you feel not long after downing your triple shot latte.

So it’s not the caffeine that’s doing the stimulating. Instead, it’s keeping the doors blocked while the real “energy spirits” of the brain do what they love to do. As every good coffee drinker knows, this effect lessens over time. It increasingly takes more and more caffeine to achieve the same level of stimulation from your excitatory neurotransmitters otherwise “disguised” as your tolerance level.

Harmless Sipping by Sarah DeHaven

Link for the following post.

According to a recent study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, researchers found that “many parents believe that letting young children taste alcohol discourages later use”. The study was based off of data collected from 1,050 mothers and their third-grade children in which the adults were asked their alcohol-specific attitudes and practices, and their opinions on providing tastes of alcohol to their children.

            Researchers found:

- About 25% of mothers felt that allowing their child to sip/taste alcohol would discourage their curiosity and the taste would be unpleasant and thus decrease the desire to partake. It would also remove the “forbidden fruit” appeal.

- 40% of mothers felt that withholding their children from tasting alcohol would increase the desire to have it.

- 22% felt that if the child first experienced alcohol at home in the presence of their parents they would be more apt to resist/fight peer pressure later in life when encountering alcohol.

- 26% felt it would lead to less risky drinking in middle school

            Although more research is required, the researchers are concerned that parents have a misconception about how their child will act when there is no adult supervision present. In addition there was a strong association between parents in favor of early sipping and those children who reported alcohol use. In the study 33% of children reported having tried either beer, wine, or liquor. In addition, previous research and studies have come to find that “early introduction to alcohol is a primary risk factor for problem drinking during adolescence”.

            Overall, despite the controversial nature of the topic at hand, I found this article very interesting. While I am not a mother yet, I am not sure that I would be apt to allow my children to sip alcohol at such a young age. I firmly believe that education (of many sorts) begins in the home and the way we act and react many times thus influences our children. As parents (speaking in a future perspective), we try to teach our children right from wrong and hope that we build them to be strong, well-rounded individuals able to rise above peer pressure and make the best decisions possible. Even though we can’t hold their hand all the time, we hope they will uphold the values we have instilled in them. I also believe that having and encouraging continually communication will allow and encourage our children to continually keep us (the parents) in the loop and in tune with their lives. Although this is idealistic, it is not always realistic, and consequently we must treat every child and every situation on an individual and personalized level.

A Creative Approach to Getting Rid of Unwanted Memories by Chris Caldwell

The April 2012 edition of Discover Magazine contained the article, “Where Memory Lives”, written by Dan Hurley. The article discussed the research designed to find if memories in the amygdala of mice where fear-based memories are stored could be manipulated. The research held promise, not only to eradicate the fear from trauma or a negative but also to strengthen the hippocampus in Alzheimer’s patients. One, very recent study, conducted by University of Toronto scientists, Sheena Josselyn and Paul Frankland, used CREB, a protein called CAMP Response Element-Binding. CAMP is cyclic adenosine monophosphate, a messenger chemical involved with storing memories in the amygdala. Their goal was to find the neurons involved in storing a specific memory and target them for destruction. They found that the neurons responsible for the memory were evenly dispersed throughout the amygdala so targeting them was a challenge. They found an ingenious way to select only those neurons involved in a memory by first conditioning mice to form a specific memory. They then looked for the protein produced in neurons within 5 minutes of memory formation and injected only those neurons with CREB and a toxin. Once the toxin destroyed those targeted neurons, the unconditioned response didn’t take place, a sort of “selective amnesia”. The hope is to expand on the research to help those with PTSD, among other problems, but remain cautious as they killed a single fearful event in one area of the brain in a mouse. Also promising is that they have injected CREB into the hippocampus in mice with equivalent of Alzheimer’s and found that the mice regained ability to learn.

This post is based on the article found at this link:


Why So Much Multitasking? by Natalia Van Reenen

This post is based on the following article found on the news page:

According to a recent study cited by the American Psychological Association, people experience an incredible 40 percent drop in productivity when they multitask. There is actually no such thing as multitasking; our brains can only process one thing at a time. When people “multitask” they are merely switching back and forth between two tasks, which causes unnecessary strain. Then why do people multitask? The stimulation caused by opening an email or writing a text message signals the brain to secrete dopamine. Although the surge of dopamine makes one feel good, it is only temporary. Multitasking can make a person tire more quickly and hinder happiness in the long run. There are many ways to stop the habit. One way you can limit your tendency to multitask is by using a timer. Set it to go off every 30 minutes to one hour when you are in the process of completing tasks. Each time the timer goes off, ask yourself if you are doing the task you should be doing. You can train yourself over time to focus more on what needs to be done and less on other tasks.

I was shocked to read just how much productivity is lowered when multitasking. In today’s fast-paced society, people are always finding ways to save time. Interestingly, we may save time by refraining from doing the very thing we once thought would save us time in the first place. I urge you to think twice about multitasking the next time you have a long to-do list and see if the strategy works for you. It’s worth a try!

Type of Glass Matters by Amber Mullins

Post based on the following article:

Researchers at the University of Bristol think they have found a way to help people pace themselves while out drinking alcoholic beverages. They have found within their research that the type of glass used to consume the alcohol changes the pace a person drinks it. They used 160 social drinkers to do the research. They also chose two types of drinking glasses and two different types of beverages, one alcoholic, one non- alcoholic. The two glasses used were a regular straight glass and a curved beer flute glass. Study showed that participants were “twice as slow when drinking alcohol from the straight-sided glass compared to the curved glass.” There was no difference in drinking pace in participants that were given the non-alcoholic beverage. Researchers believe it is because the half-way point is harder to estimate in the curved glass.

I agree with the researchers but also believe that the beer flute glass represents the expectations people want from going out and having a couple drinks. These types of glasses are bundled into our sub-conscious just like a cold beer mug is with a bar, a goodtime, cold beer, etc. Whereas the straight glass has other uses such as being used at home or restaurants for soda or water. Beer flutes are usually only used for alcoholic drinks. This might have something to do with the fast pace of drinking in the comparing of the two different glasses.


Posts by My Research Lab

This semester, students who are working on research projects with me will be posting weekly entries on this blog.  The first of these (below) was by Jessica Reyka.  I welcome, and highly encourage your comments.  This is a blog, so opinions are welcome.

Bullying the Gifted by Jessica Reyka

Bullying and the Gifted: Welcome Back to School?  based on the following article:


Many gifted students have worries about going back to school due to the fact that they feel as though they don’t “belong” or fit in with their peers. Due to the idea that they portray themselves as a student in isolation compared to their classmates, many of their classmates treat them as though they are “freaks of nature” and the bullying begins.

Some things that cause the gifted students to be bullied by their peers are:

1)     They are academically advanced compared to the other kids the same age

2)     More emotionally sensitive about what is right and wrong and appear to be perfectionists

3)     Have a higher level of sense of humor that their peers do not understand, so therefore jokes are out of the question.

There are things that parents of gifted children should do in order to make their child feel more comfortable at school such as: listening to their concerns about school, educate your child on the reasons why he/she is gifted so they understand it is not a bad thing, relate the situation to times in your own life so they do not feel alone and give them examples on how to deal with the bullying in a kind manner. It is very important for the parents of these students who are being bullied to protected their children and seek help from the school (teachers, counselors, etc…) to end this terrible act.

The Placebo Effect of Antidepressants

This past Sunday (2/19), 60 minutes ran a story on antidepressants, specifically SSRIs (watch video,  The central point of the story was that for people with mild to moderate depression, the effect of antidepressants was not greater than the placebos they were compared to in research trials.  Key points of discussion:

1. The drugs were effective, meaning depression decreased in patients taking them.  The mechanism of effectiveness, however, was the expectation of improvement, not the active ingredient.

2.  Should they continue to be prescribed?  They cost money and lead to side effects.  The answer may seem obvious, but it isn’t.  Part of the placebo effect is believing you got something (paying for it, and getting side effects) 

3.  What effect would exposés like this 60 minutes segement have on the placebo effect?  Placebo works because people believe it is real.  If people do not believe in these drugs, then they will be less effective (and so will their placebo comparisons).

Prediction Machines

In Saturday’s New York Times Opinion page, an article by Dr. Andy Clark, do-thrifty-brains-make-better-minds (read the entire article using this link), describes the thrifty nature of the human brain. Essentially, our brain matches current stimuli (things we see, hear, smell, or emotions, drug states, etc.) with previous experience and predict what will happen next. We behave according to those expectations.

Some important principles:
1. We only process small pieces of environmental stimuli and fill in the blanks with what we already know. Remarkably, we experience sights and sounds as complete pictures (even though we are actually only processing pieces).
2. We are more likely to process unexpected information. If there is an error in “filling in the blanks” we attend to it.
3. Almost the entire process occurs without awareness.
4. Your brain is always engaged in this process.

An example is, after driving a manual transmission for years, you step into an automatic (by the way, many of you have already filled in the blank of the rest of this sentence). Your brain recognizes car, and all of its componenents, so it predicts a pedal to the left of the brake (the clutch). You unconsciously try to step on it and find only air. When your brain registers the mistake (which it does before you are even aware of it), you become conscious of what you should do instead.

I cannot overstate how complex and remarkable this system is.

Blog is Live

It is my intent to use this blog as a tool for exposing students to the latest research in psychological science. Periodically, I will create posts on hot topics. I invite students to comment on these topics.