Monthly Archives: April 2017

Mindfulness matters to physiologists

Excerpt from a Physiology News feature by Lee de-Wit, @leedewitInstitute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge, UK & Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London, UK

Our minds are often busy planning the future or thinking about the past. Mindfulness involves becoming more aware of what is happening right now. That might involve becoming more aware of feelings in your body. It might involve becoming aware of the sensations of your breath. It might simply involve becoming more conscious of the fact one’s mind is thinking about the future or the past.

This practise of mindfulness has proved effective in treating certain clinical conditions, and can influence behaviour on a range of tasks. In parallel to this, there is also a large body of evidence showing that mindfulness has a range of measurable outcomes on both neural activity and even neural structures. Research on mindfulness not only helps us to understand this practise per se, but has also increased our understanding of plasticity and localization of functions within the adult human brain. […]

Secular mindfulness without Buddhism

Mindfulness is a relatively recent approach that extracts some of the core teachings from Buddhism and reformulates them as a secular practise to help patients recovering from chronic pain or to deal with stress. This approach was first pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the Massachusetts University Hospital. […] Jon Kabat-Zinn developed a secular program of mindfulness training that focused on developing some of the key skills involved in Buddhist meditation and awareness training. He formalised this approach as an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. This model was then further developed by Mark Williams and colleagues at Oxford, who developed the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) course. This 8-week MBCT course was developed over 10 years ago, as a treatment to prevent the relapse of patients who have suffered multiple episodes of depression. Two recent meta-analyses have provided evidence that MBCT offers an effective treatment in preventing relapse for patients who have had depression (Kuyken et al., 2016), and in the treatment of mood and anxiety problems in clinical populations (Hofmann et al., 2010).

At its most simple, mindfulness is about becoming more aware of one’s experience of feelings, emotions, thoughts and mental and bodily state in the present moment. […] When you first start, you’ll realise just how much the mind wanders off when you try and focus on a simple aspect of your present moment experience. Critically however, mindfulness doesn’t mean one starts judging oneself for having a mind that wanders off, rather one seeks to acknowledge one’s wandering mind and patiently learn the skill of bringing it back to the present moment.

To really develop this practise, it can be useful to have extended periods of meditation where you focus on areas of your body, or the sensation of your breathing in a formal meditation posture. Mindfulness isn’t just something you do sitting on a mat on the floor however. You can mindfully eat your dinner, mindfully draw a picture, mindfully read an article about mindfulness.

How meditation can change your brain

I sometimes think that one of the most important and under-communicated (to the general public) findings of the last 50 years is just how remarkably similar our brains are. More recently however, there has been an increasing recognition that our brains sometimes differ in ways that have interesting functional and theoretical consequences. […]

In 2004, meditation joined the list of factors that were associated with changes in the brain’s structure. Building on work from the previous year, showing that the brains of experienced meditators had higher levels of coherent activity (Lutz et al., 2004), researchers at Harvard, Yale, MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital found that there were also large-scale differences in the structure of certain areas of the brains of experienced meditators (Lazar et al., 2005). These changes were not random, they were found in areas of the brain that could be logically interpreted given the skills practised in meditation. In particular, one of the areas that was larger in experienced meditators was the insula. This is an area of the brain that we know is important in interoception, the perception (visceral, not visual) of our own body. Given that mindfulness often involves the development of a greater awareness of one’s present moment bodily experience, it seems logical that the area of the brain that seems to be involved in that would be one of the areas to be influenced by long-term mindfulness practise.

Read the full article in Physiology News.


Hofmann SG, Sawyer AT, Witt AA, Oh D (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: a meta-analytic review. J Consult Clin Psychol 78, 169-183 doi:10.1037/a0018555

Kuyken W, et al. (2016). Efficacy of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in prevention of depressive relapse: an individual patient data meta-analysis from randomized trials. JAMA Psychiatry 73, 565–574 doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.0076

Lazar SW, et al. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport 16, 1893–1897.

Lutz A, Greischar LL, Rawlings NB, Ricard M, Davidson RJ (2004). Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 101, 16369–16373 doi:10.1073/pnas.0407401101


Perceptions of Stress

By Andy Powell, @DrAndyDPowell, Birmingham City University

Sleepless nights, sweaty palms, lack of appetite – the physiologist in me recognised the classic symptoms of the stress response. So why was I stressed? I have a loving family, a crazy border terrier who thinks he is still a puppy, and a job as university lecturer that I love.

First, a disclaimer. I recognise that the circumstances that left me displaying symptoms of stress were short term and had a definite resolution, but those circumstances and more importantly my reaction to them was an eye opener to what simple things can trigger a period of stress.

I was up at night tossing and turning thinking about “Fun and Brains,” a public outreach event I helped organise at British Neuroscience Association’s 2017 “Festival of Neuroscience”. The activities brought together art and neuroscience.  A performance artist explored the role of memories, participants built neurons, and speakers presented about how the brain works at all ages.

“Perception Playground” was the title of my activity. Participants of all ages explored how simple tasks can be affected by altering perception. They coloured in neurons and played table tennis with vision-altering prism glasses on. They saw first-hand why drunk-driving is a big no-no (drunk goggles + remote control car = absolute carnage).

My personal favourite was the headphones that create a small delay between the person’s speaking and hearing. It really affects your ability to speak! People were generally only able to get a few words into a sentence before ripping off their headphones. A common coping strategy was to shout, presumably to be heard through the headphones. I considered the activity a success when I had a bunch of kids shouting about how the brain works.

We did have one participant who was totally unaffected, which we put down to the fact that she was a regular user of Skype to call home. The regular breaks Skype introduces somehow conditioned her brain (I am sure there is a great research project in there somewhere).

I thought this would be right up my street. I am a STEM ambassador and I absolutely love sharing my passion for science. I mean, who in their right mind would go to the Big Bang Fair and stands for 6 hours, with their hands in gunge, explaining to school students who have fished an organ out of a simulated surgical patient, what those organs do (that would be me). What I love most is answering those completely out-of-left-field questions that only a child knows how to ask.

So why was this the most stressful thing I have ever done (even worse than my PhD viva)? I think the big difference here was that I was flying solo on the organisation of perception playground.  Remember my crazy border terrier? It’s like that moment as a puppy when he embarrasses you in the middle of a crowded town centre by peeing in an inappropriate place.

Perception playground was mine, but part of a larger whole – and nobody wants to let others down. So right from the beginning that internal pressure was different from previous experiences.  I would lie awake at night thinking: Have I booked the volunteers? Have I organised the activities correctly? What if the weather is bad (it was held outside)?

All the while the physiologist in me would be screaming – control your breathing, slow your mind – often to no avail.  Set-backs along the way didn’t help – the funding I applied for didn’t materialise.  Normally this is a not a problem. I have a thick skin from years of rejected grant applications and papers, but on top of the internal pressures it quickly became a screaming matter. Even the thought of writing my first blog post was a source of major stress. Who’d have thought that it would almost write itself?

So how did it go?

It went wonderfully. I would do it again in a heartbeat. It would however be remiss of me not to thank all of the volunteers who gave up their precious time and offered their valuable knowledge. Without them it would not have been possible.

Participants appeared to enjoy themselves and take away some nuggets of knowledge; a comment from one participant sums up why I do outreach – “Thank you for teaching me about my brain, I never considered what it does before”.  Hopefully that girl is now inspired to study neuroscience, and will present her PhD work at the 2029 “Festival of Neuroscience”.

What has it taught me?

I hope that I haven’t come across as trivialising the effects of stress. Yes, this was a stressful situation with a defined end.  However, I always thought that I was invulnerable to it and I never suspected that something that I love doing would be the trigger.  I now have a better understanding of just how crippling it can be, and how even small or much loved things can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.






Researcher Spotlight: James Betts

PastedGraphic-1‘The timing of daily meals is important for our metabolism. It’s easy to change how frequently we eat.’

James Betts is a Reader (Associate Professor) in Nutrition, Metabolism and Statistics in the Department for Health at the University of Bath. He is interested in energy metabolism, and how components of energy balance interact to regulate human health and physiological function.


What is your research about?

I am interested in the effect of nutrition on human physiology. In particular, I have always been interested in energy metabolism and therefore the amount, type and timing of macronutrient ingestion. Recently my work has become most focused on the interactions between time and energy balance, for example considering the frequency or regularity of eating relative to other daily events such as exercise, sleep and other eating occasions.

How did you end up working in this field?

I remember already being fascinated by nutrition during my school days. I’ve also always played sports, so I was keen to study the scientific basis of exercise at University. Loughborough was a natural progression for me and it was there that I participated in countless experiments as an undergraduate. In my final year, I started conducting research, and haven’t looked back since. I studied the effects of taking vitamin C and E for six weeks on oxidative stress and muscle damage after exercise. (More recently, I submitted and published this work). That experience galvanised my passion for scientific research. During my PhD, supervised by Clyde Williams, I continued studying metabolism after exercise, but looked at carbohydrate and protein ingestion instead. I have maintained this interest in how exercise interacts with eating but now with greater focus on how the timing of nutrients affects metabolic regulation and health.

Why is your work important?

All studies of nutrition can be broadly categorised under the headings of how much (i.e. dose) of what (i.e. type) we eat when (i.e. timing). Mainstream media and primary research focus on the first two. However, the timing of daily meals is important for our metabolism. It’s easy to change how frequently we eat, and research is increasingly showing that we can optimise this to be healthier. Changing how frequently we eat might also help counter obesity and associated chronic diseases. These conditions are undoubtedly a great public health challenge in our generation and represent an incredible burden to many individuals, the economy and society.

What does your typical day, in and out of the lab/classroom involve?

I enjoy that my job is so varied and I get to meet many people by working on human metabolism. While well-controlled experiments are repetitive, I am always learning. My typical day starts taking adipose and muscle samples from our volunteers who fasted overnight. When not in the laboratory, I am either writing scientific papers and grant applications, or advising my students.


Challenges and importance of studying depression in rodent models

By Anjanette Harris, University of Edinburgh, @anjiefitch

Sufferers of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) are more than just a little ‘down in the dumps’. Persistent low mood and low self-esteem are classic symptoms, but sufferers also experience learned helplessness, increased anxiety, feelings of guilt and worthlessness, and enjoy the pleasures of life less (also called anhedonia).

To investigate potential therapies and the cause of this debilitating disease, it is sometimes necessary turn to animal models, such as rats and mice. Rats and mice offer a powerful tool to investigate the causes and consequences of mood disorders, because unlike in humans, we can control stressors, genetics, and environmental factors more easily in rats and mice. We can give certain drugs, implement exercise regimens, and modify diets to see what happens.shutterstock_106507433

While a rat or mouse cannot communicate its feelings, we can measure some aspects of depressive behaviour. Rodents normally love sugary water, but when they are anhedonic they have a weaker preference for it. A forced swim test involves placing a rodent in a container of water in which they can swim but not escape. Choosing to float rather than tread water during this test is used as a sign of depression.

Measuring preference for sugar and floating behaviour in rodents is similar to a questionnaire in a human study.  While a questionnaire identifies depressed subjects, it reveals very little about the cause of depression. To successfully treat or prevent MDD, we need to understand what goes wrong in the brain.

In humans, a specific type of brain scan called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) helps bridge the gap between identifying and unpicking what is faulty in a depressed brain. This scan measures oxygen levels in the brain’s blood circulation. Since active brain cells use more oxygen, the fMRI signal indicates the parts of the brain that are working hard.Capture

We can use these scans to look at differences between the brain activity of depressed and healthy people. For example, in response to negative stimuli such as pictures of sad faces, the outer layer of the brain (the cortex) exerts weaker control over the emotional centre (the limbic system) in depressed patients. In addition, networks in the brain that respond to reward are increasingly less active as anhedonia becomes more severe. These findings may help explain why those who are vulnerable to MDD are both unable to supress negative mood when it arises and no longer enjoy previously pleasurable experiences.

While manipulating rodent genomes and administering drugs or stressors is straightforward, neuroimaging is more challenging. We have specially built small scanners, but a key to successful imaging is a still and calm subject. One solution is to anaesthetise the rats or mice.  However, since anaesthesia is rarely used in human imaging and a sleeping rodent cannot participate in cognitive tasks, this limits our ability to look at cognitive processing in rats and mice in the same way that we do in humans.

In recent years, researchers have developed ways to gradually acclimate rats or mice to being held still in an fMRI scanner. To study cognitive processes, scientists can use tasks that can be completed in the MRI scanner. For example, they train rats to associate visual or olfactory stimuli –such as a flashing light or a vanilla scent-  with a foot shock. They then image their brains while presenting the flashing light or scent.

This technique is an improvement on the classical test for fear in rodents, ‘freezing behaviour’. When a mouse or rat is afraid, it freezes like a statue. Using brain scans translates better to humans than studying freezing behaviour. For example, researchers used the visual task set-up to show that rats that experienced early life stress, have enhanced activity in brain networks that process fear. Early life stress is a known risk factor for anxiety and depression in humans.

Reward, emotional regulation, extinction learning (learning to forget an unpleasant memory), and cognitive bias (whether we perceive ambiguous situations to be positive or negative) are aspects of depression that we can currently assess in humans. The next big challenge is to devise behavioural tasks that enable us to examine these in awake rodents while their brains are being scanned.

This way we can validate rodent models of depression, elucidate what’s happening in the brain during negative affective state, and guide the development of successful treatments for Major Depressive Disorder.

The next generation of scientists grill policymakers

By Peter Aldiss, BHF-funded PhD student at the University of Nottingham, @Peter_Aldiss

Voice of the Future, an annual event organised by the Royal Society of Biology, gives young researchers like me the opportunity to ask the upper echelons of science policy the questions that matter most to us. Quizzing MPs on the future of British science in Westminster is not something I imagined having the opportunity to do. Despite the sceptic in me supposing it to be no more than a ‘tick-box exercise’, I kept an open mind.


Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation was first up. She spoke passionately about the North-South divide, the numerous inequalities in STEM, the importance of globalisation, and how investment in technology can drive growth.  She explained how things would differ under Labour, though with the party in its current state it will be a long time before they can realise their ambitions to transform anything, let alone STEM. In what turned out to be an afternoon of carefully scripted answers, Onwurah deserves a huge amount of credit for going off script on multiple occasions.

Chi Onwurah_cropped.jpg

A quick changeover and I was sat at the horseshoe ready to grill Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Advisor.  The first question was about forensic science, which Sir Mark explained is hugely important to many areas and will continue to receive funding and support. In response to a question about how the research community can encourage publication of negative results, he clarified that there are two types of negative results: those that are negative due to poor study design and those that are negative when a study is methodologically sound. Did this really answer the question? I’m not convinced it did. As head of the new merger of Research Councils, I hope Sir Mark will address this issue in the future.

Hugely impressive throughout was Sir Mark’s ability to glance at his notes briefly then discuss every topic – genetic manipulation, space research, environment, inequalities in STEM – in vast detail. It’s no surprise that he is the Chief Scientific Advisor.

Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation was up to bat next. The first question was about the effect of Brexit and whether we will continue to be attractive to international students. He assured us that we should continue to collaborate and communicate with our colleagues in the EU, and that there are no plans to cap international student numbers. He said there are no plans to merge research and teaching funding, as ‘blue sky’ research is fundamental and will continue to be supported. I’m not entirely convinced it is supported currently. Apparently, the Conservative Party allocate more to STEM than they originally intended and Mr. Johnson said this shows how highly they value the area.

Questions on how the UK can improve commercialisation of research, increase patent numbers, support biotech spin-outs and address air pollution followed. It struck me that Mr. Johnson didn’t feel there were any real issues and spoke like someone who is not worried about the future. Everything is bright, Brexit is not a problem and the UK will always be strong and a leader in STEM. I’m not convinced, but of course he has to toe the party line.

Science and Technology Panel

The closing act was the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, a cross-party group whose job it is to ensure government policy is based on solid evidence. They spoke about the importance of the Committee and the weight cross-party agreement can carry. They also discussed the policy positions behind artificial intelligence and space travel, specifically concern around the former and excitement around the latter.

The ‘post-truth’ world was brought up; despite an apparent disdain for experts scientists, they are apparently hugely respected and trusted by the public, much more so than politicians. On improving the number of women in STEM, the SNP’s Carol Monaghan made it clear no baby girl should ever be forced into pink or made to play with dolls, but should play with fun toys like Lego. Someone asked the members of the committee why they became MPs. One answer stuck with me: that Westminster is where you can effect change. “Order, order” was the cue to finish a very interesting afternoon.

All in all I enjoyed the experience tremendously. I certainly didn’t feel it was a ‘tick-box’ exercise, but did come away feeling it had been a recruitment drive. Speakers made numerous references to needing MPs with backgrounds in STEM, and encouraged us to consider a career in politics. I would like to think, as I’m sure all others in STEM would, that we can create change and influence government policy without becoming MPs. Hats-off to the Royal Society of Biology for a top event and to all who attended for making the event a success.

The science of laughter

Excerpt from a Physiology News feature by Sophie Scott, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL, London, UK, @sophiescott

Human vocal communication is primarily studied in the form of human speech – a remarkable talent and evolutionarily highly specialised motor act that involves high levels of precise motor control over the articulators and over breathing. However, we do not solely communicate vocally with speech: when we are in the grips of more extreme emotion, we frequently start to produce non-verbal vocalisations, often in a relatively involuntary fashion. This includes vocal behaviours such as screaming, sobbing and laughing.

The physiology of laughter

I first started working with these kinds of vocal acts in the 1990s, when I was collaborating with colleagues who were studying neuropsychological patients who had specific deficits in the perception of emotions. […] The characteristic ‘ha ha ha’ sound is driven by the involvement of the intercostal muscles: normally used smoothly to pull air into and out of the lungs during metabolic breathing, and to produce a constant sub glottal pressure, to vibrate the vocal folds during speech and song, the intercostal muscles and diaphragm start to produce large contractions during laughter, each of which contributes to a single ‘ha’ burst, as air is forcibly exhaled (NB it is also possible for these contractions to be largely acoustically silent).

Laughter is more like a different way of breathing than it is a different way of speaking.

If these contractions start to run into one another, then the laughter can start to sound more like silent wheezing. From this perspective, laughter is more like a different way of breathing than it is a different way of speaking. Another physiological change is a constricting of the pharynx, meaning that some sounds are made during laughter as a consequence of this constriction (e.g. glottal whistles). The intercostal contractions made during laughter are much greater than those used to control breathing during speech production, and this also affects the noises made during laughter, with very high pitched noises being produced, which would be difficult or unlikely to produce under voluntary control. My laugh can be very high pitched, and I can hit pitches when laughing that I would be unable to produce while singing.

Archimedes gif

Rats don’t laugh at jokes, and neither do we

Laughter is an interesting human behaviour to study, even in isolation: it appears to be a universal emotional expression, however claims that only humans laugh have transpired to be incorrect. Laughter has been reported in gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans, where it can look and sound quite similar to human laughter. However, we are unable to hear many of the noises made by other animals, meaning that there may be many more examples out there: it’s also probably true that no one is out there looking for laughter. Certainly a vocal behaviour which is contextually identical to laughter has been described in rats: rats make a distinctive chirping sound when they are playing together, and when they are being tickled, and when they are anticipating being tickled. Indeed, at its heart, Panksepp has argued, laughter can be considered an invitation to play.

We are 30 times more likely to laugh with someone else than if we are on our own.

As all mammals play when juveniles, and some continue to play through into adulthood (dogs, humans, otters), this argument would suggest that laughter is likely to be widely found across mammals. This role in play seems counterintuitive to humans adults, who strongly associate laughter with humour, jokes and comedy, however Robert Provine has shown that even in humans, laughter is primarily a social behaviour, which is strongly primed by other people – we are 30 times more likely to laugh with someone else than if we are on our own.

We are laughing to show that we like people, understand them, agree with them.

What this means in practice is that we are laughing mostly when we are in the company of others – and we are still not laughing at jokes. Indeed we laugh mostly at comments and statements and although we report laughing because we are amused, we are laughing to show that we like people, understand them, agree with them, are affiliated to them as much as if not more than because something is ‘funny’. Within conversations, laughter is very tightly co-ordinated, with members of a conversation laughing together at the end of sentences, even if the conversation is in sign language rather than a vocal language, and in theory people could be laughing all the way through if they wished to. We also laugh much more often than we report: all studies that have compared actual to reported laughter find that people laugh more than they say they do. Indeed, laughter is probably the most commonly encountered non-verbal vocal emotional expression, occurring at around 7 times per 10 minutes of conversation. Provine has also noted that laughter is highly behaviourally contagious, and people will frequently laugh simply because others are laughing. Like other such contagious behaviours, such as yawning, contagious laughter is modified by social factors, and people are much more likely to catch a laugh (or a yawn) from someone they know than from a stranger.

Read the full article in Physiology News.

Watch Sophie’s TED talk, Why we laugh.