February PsychNotes

phrenologistWanna hear a joke? A neuron and a glial cell went to summer camp. When they arrived at the barracks, the neuron demanded the top bunk. “Why should I get stuck on the bottom,” asked the glial cell. The neuron answered, “because I want to have a high resting potential!” (I didn’t say it was a good joke.) Here’s some recent news, starting with the brain’s tiny unsung heroes.

1) Hooray for Brain Pericytes
Pericytes are mysterious little cells that line capillaries and are fundamental to the blood-brain barrier. Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina have found that when one pericyte goes missing, it’s neighbors stretch to fill the gap. Understanding these little fellas could lead to interventions for strokes and Alzheimer’s disease. There’s really no major takeaway here beyond the tediousness of scientific progress and my gratitude for people with more patience than me.

2) What Happens to Fat Cells When You Lose Weight?
Your adipocytes don’t merely release stored energy when you lose weight. From Popular Science: “…your fat cells are always trying to store stuff. Fats? Of course. Vitamins? Heck yeah. Hormones? You bet. Random pollutants and toxins? Sure. Adipose tissue will soak all that up like an oily little sponge and keep it safe until you need it again.” Oddly, there isn’t much truth to the old trope that acid flashbacks are caused by the release of hallucinogenic molecules stored by fat cells. That very real condition appears to be a function of altered brain biology.

3) How Electroconvulsive Therapy Works
I can attest to these findings from Binghampton University that “inadequate sleep is part of what makes negative intrusive thoughts stick around and interfere with people’s lives.” My one caution in reading this study is not to get stuck on the 8-hour sleep benchmark the researchers chose for the study. People have widely varying sleep requirements. The lesson here is to avoid sleep deprivation if you lean toward anxiety or depression.

4) A Stranger’s T-Shirt Is Just a T-Shirt You Haven’t Met Yet
From the University of British Columbia: “…women feel calmer after being exposed to their male partner’s scent.” That much isn’t especially new or interesting, but this part is: “…being exposed to a stranger’s scent had the opposite effect and raised levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.” The authors hypothesized that the scent of a stranger triggers our deeply-ingrained fear of strangers.

5) The Final Nail in Phrenology’s Coffin
Phrenology is the 19th century “science” of assessing personality by fondling the bumps and divots on a person’s skull. If you’re like me, you’ve thought, Hey, what ever happened to phrenology? It seemed pretty solid. Last month, a group at Oxford put phrenology to the test by comparing MRI results to demographic data. The results were unsurprising, but the story is worth a read. As whacky as it was, phrenology did make an important contribution to the study of the brain.

I hope you have an excellent February and a most gratifying Valentine’s Day!