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Scientists Discover Brain Circuits Attached to Mood, and How to Hack Them
Emotional hacking is real with implications toward mental health. What if this got into the wrong hands? We could be joyously enslaved without the emotional countenance to fight back.
Imagine being happy all the time. A devastating divorce, no problem? The boss dumping work on you, without compensation? No big deal. Your kid throat punched someone at recess, and might get expelled? You can handle any of these situations calmly, and walk away stress free. Why? You’ve got a conscious handle on your emotions. You can turn your mood up or down at the twist of a dial. How is that possible?
Researchers at Duke University, experimenting on laboratory mice, were recently able to identify the brain circuitry related to mood. They used “super-fine electrodes” along with a minuscule amount of a specific drug. Not only were they able to classify which neurons were responsible for mood, they were also able to actually control a subject’s mood, dialing it up and down at will. In a study in the July 20 issue of the journal Neuron, researchers were able to take mice prone to depression, anxiety, or stress, and restore them to relative emotional health, just by tweaking the circuitry responsible in their brains.
Kafui Dzirasa was the lead researcher in this study. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry, behavioral sciences, and neurobiology. Dr. Dzirasa said that if you “turn the volume up” on mice who hadn’t had stress, they soon become so. Those who had experienced stress and didn’t manage it well, had their emotional volume turned back down, to normal.
Model of the limbic system. Neurons connecting this to the prefrontal cortex regulate emotions.
These circuits or bundles of neurons regulate our emotional life. It is what researchers call the emotional “pacemaker” of the brain, located in the prefrontal cortex. The bundle is also attached to the limbic system, and allows it to “keep time.” The limbic system is responsible for our main drives such as eating and sex. It also regulates the amygdala or emotional center, responsible for things like the stress response. The circuits in the prefrontal cortex act as a signaling system which helps regulate mood.
This circuitry regulates and converts signals from one another, as the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex are in constant contact. Now researchers can discover which cells go with what area and understand more deeply how they interact with one another, even recognizing when they aren’t working right. Said differently, this might lead to a better understanding behind the pathogenesis of certain mood disorders or how they develop, and could lead to better methods of diagnosis and treatment.
Duke researchers used several approaches to look at what role these circuits had in different mood disorders. Brain stimulation in the prefrontal cortex could help lessen or even alleviate things like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and chronic stress, to name a few. These disorders are at epidemic proportions today. But lots of times the drugs associated with them don’t work, or have side effects. Not only did Duke researchers want to understand how this complex system worked, they wanted to know if it had implications for possible drug development.
Drugs like Paxil are often prescribed to the depressed, but they have serious side effects, including suicidal thoughts.
In this experiment, 32 electrode arrays were placed inside four precise areas in the brains of mice. Then the mice were subjected to stressful situations, and researchers recorded the activity they found within their brains. The kind of situation the mice encountered is known as chronic social defeat. This allowed researchers to observe interaction between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex, which is where it is believed major depression arises from.
To understand the data being recorded, the neuroscientists turned to colleagues, who applied statistical analysis and machine learning algorithms, to identify which parts of the brain certain data originated from, and how to decipher the timing control mechanism. Dr. Dzirasa said they discovered that the inner workings were a “clock signature” which determined which mice became resilient and which susceptible to stress.
By using very small amounts of a specific drug called DREADD (Designer Receptors Exclusively Activated by Designer Drug), researchers could control each circuit. Though it may have implications in humans, one must understand that a mouse brain is not a human one. Scientists can only discern something akin to mood in a mouse by its behavior. Far more research must be done before this work bears clinical benefits.
A model of deep brain stimulation using electrodes.
Still, the implications are enormous. Think about the societal costs which could be saved. Those with mental health issues could turn up or down their mood to overcome their disorder. But this discovery also contains the seeds of emotional totalitarianism. In decades or more to come, workers and activists could be made happy when really they are fed up, and thus much needed social change could be eliminated.
We have emotions for a reason. Sure, sometimes someone gets stuck in depression or anxiety, and cannot function properly. But for others at times, our emotions are telling us something is wrong, with a relationship or in our career path, for instance. An oyster only makes a pearl out of an irritant. Negative emotions force us to change and grow. Without them, opportunities for growth may be missed.
We do not know the larger implications of complete conscious emotional control. Is this a mere technological fix? Surely, just because you’ve changed someone’s perception, doesn’t mean the underlying problem has been solved. This breakthrough has a lot of promise in terms of managing certain mental health issues. But unregulated, and if the same is true in human brains, it could lead to an anesthetized world where everyone is okay with everything and anything, and nothing ever changes, a Brave New World where every negative emotion is diagnosable, and soma is a ubiquitous pill prescribed by a doctor.
To learn more about brain stimulation and its effect on depression click here:
An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.
- A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
- A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
- Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.
The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.
Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .
The Barry Arm Fjord
Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach
Image source: Matt Zimmerman
The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.
Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest
Image source: whrc.org
There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.
The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.
"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."
Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.
What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord
Moving slowly at first...
Image source: whrc.org
"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."
The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.
Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.
Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.
While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.
Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."
How do you prepare for something like this?
Image source: whrc.org
The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:
"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."
In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.
What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?
Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.
Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.
- A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
- The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
- Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.