Tag Archives: Neurons

ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge: An Imperfect Place

The devil hides down amongst the cubes*.

You’d have to have not paid your Internet bill over the last couple of months to miss out on knowing about the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge thing.

It started with some professional athletes, not — as myth would have it — an ALS patient. The challenge was to either be filmed dumping a bucket of ice over your head or give money to a charity of your choice. It morphed from there.

And promptly went viral.

Which led to thousands of people filming themselves while having a bucket of ice dumped on their heads while challenging others to do the same. In fact, my dad and I even watched one of those happen poolside at Chabil Mar, a resort in the Central American country of Belize. It was a few weeks ago, before this really hit big so we had no idea what it was about.

Those last four words there. . . That’s what this is about.

So far this post, I’ve written a lot of words about the Ice-Bucket Challenge and mentioned ALS only twice. And never said what ALS really is.

Better known as Lou Gherig’s Disease, named for the New York Yankees baseball player who contracted the disease and thereby showed the bits of the country that liked baseball and were paying attention that the disease existed, ALS stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a progressive, degenerative disease that gradually destroy neurons (nerve cells) in the brain and spinal column. Over time, the disease annihilates voluntary control over the body’s muscles, robbing the person with the disease of the ability to move, to speak, to breathe. For some patients, the end point of the disease is total paralysis of the body. And the worst part is that their mind still is active and aware and trapped in a decayed body incapable of responding to anything.

ALS is, to put it mildly, a horrifying disease. Donating money to help fund research into a cure or a way to slow the progression of the disease is definitely a worthy cause. (Those who want to donate without resorting to dumping ice water on their heads can do so at the ALSA gift page.)

So, given all that, I should be all for the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge, right, dudes?. After all, as of Friday, the challenges have resulted in the ALS Association receiving more than $41 million in donations.

My issue is with all the challengers who do nothing but dump ice on their own heads, laugh, record it and then post it to some social media site, daring others to follow suit. They don’t know what ALS is. They don’t donate to any sort of charitable institution, including the ALS Association, and only do it because everyone else is doing it. 

After all, the challenge is donate to the ALSA OR dump a bucket of ice on their heads.

I talked about this on Facebook and was called out by several of my friends there (actual friends who I actually know) for dumping (no pun intended) on the whole idea. They focused on the positives, on the donations that were raised, which are substantial.

I thought about it and talked it over with Zippy the Travelin’ Boy, who has some similar issues with the challenge. While Zippy the Travelin’ Boy still takes issue with it (mostly, I think, because it’s popular and he likes to be a contrarian) and, to be honest, so do I, it all led to the realization that I was focusing too much on the negative.

I’ll pause now for your shocked intake of breath.

This was brought home to me — literally — when Hyper Lad walked up to me with a hang-dog look, holding a bucket of ice and a video camera.

Before I would participate, he and I had a long talk about what amyotrophic lateral sclerosis actually does and agreed that he would donate money to the ALS Association.

Only then could I laugh at him when his oldest brother, Sarcasmo, poured cube-filled, ice-cold water over the young dude’s head.

Yes, in a perfect world, Hyper Lad’s fellow shiverers would be donating to worthy charitable causes on a regular basis and also donating their time, sweat and effort. They’d already know what ALS really is, why we should support research toward a cure, and be doing the ice thing only to help raise awareness and get more people to donate money to worthy charities.

But, as the estimable John Bender once said: “Screws fall out all the time, the world is an imperfect place.”

And it’s true.

Screws do fall out all the time.

I guess I’ll just have to live with the idea that people are dumping ice on their heads just because everybody else is doing it. And also some of them might actually understand that this is being used to help raise money to combat an appalling disease.

It’s not perfect, but that’ll do, pig. That’ll do.

As if the world were waiting for my approval anyway.

*Yes, this was an imperfect metaphor. I was trying to evoke the whole thing about the devil being in the detail and then conflating that with the ice-bucket challenge. Don’t judge me. I was . . . stretching.


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Who Needs A Psychiatrist When You’ve Got An iPhone?

Okay, sure the headline might have been a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s a (somewhat) serious question.

Here’s why.

Despite how amazingly complex is our brain function, it can be easily fooled and made to go along with the plans of others. For instance, if you smile at someone, odds are that that person will smile back. If you smile, you will feel better.

It should be the other way around. That is, if you feel good, you smile. And that’s true. You do. But it seems as if the mere physical act of twitching a few facial muscles is enough to fool the brain into thinking that, “If I’m smiling, I must be happy so I’d better start the happy time now.”

Which is the thinking behind MoodTune. According to the developer, Harvard psychiatrist Diego Pizzagalli, if you turn on MoodTune for about 15 minutes a day, play some games in the app, it’s possible you can lift yourself out of depression. It’s possible, Pizzagalli said, this app could be all the treatment a depressed person needs. No meds. No talk therapy. Just an iPhone app.

Pizzagalli started working on depression in 1999 and released some of his most important papers in 2001. The papers focused on “biomarkers,” signals of response in the brain to antidepressants and psychotherapy. Take a peek inside the brain, and you can see areas light up–or fail to light up–in response to treatments. Whether an area lights up or not predicts, with considerable accuracy, whether a treatment works, he says.

So, the thinking goes, what we if we illuminate those regions another way? The brain could readjust appropriately without the need for a pill. The anterior cingulate cortex is associated with depression and also works when snap decisions need to be made, Pizzagalli says, so perhaps having someone make snap decisions would help treat depression. He developed desktop software in his lab to test it out and was happy enough with the results to delve deeper into the technology.

And there’s the whole thing with the physical act of smiling making us feel happy. The thinking here is that it doesn’t matter what causes these specific areas of the brain to light up. If they light up, you feel less depressed.

I don’t know about you dudes, but I find that idea rather fascinating. It speaks to a sort of hacker mentality, but working in neurons instead of silicon chips. I think it’s sort of like an extension of behaviorist approaches to therapy. Behaviorists don’t care why you do something if the thing is what you want to stop. They just work on stopping the behavior and feel like that will take care of the underlying problem as well. In a nutshell. Generally speaking.

This is some really strange, but very cool stuff, very next-level thinking. My concern, though, arises from an analogy. If you’ve got a car tire that keeps going flat, you go out and get a new tire. Problem solved. You don’t care why it went flat because you’ve got a new tire and all is good. But what if the reason your tire kept going flat was because you kept parking next to a sharp bit of curb and it would scrape against the tire, causing it to gradually lose air. Pretty soon, you’re going to need another new tire because the underlying problem is still there.

Think of that like the brain. You’re seriously depressed. You treat this by tricking your brain into lighting up some key anti-depression areas by playing some games. You feel better. But the root cause still is there, yeah? Won’t the depression come back? Keep coming back?

I guess that’s why they research these things. We keep asking questions and they keep trying to find the answers.

I picked this information up from an interesting article at Popular Science. You might want to go over there and read the whole thing. It’s really absorbing. I know I learned some things, and that’s always good.

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Freaky Friday: Teenage Brains

by Richard

We’re going to close out science week with a look at teenage brains, thanks to the fine folks over at National Geographic magazine. No, sorry, dude, I have no idea why National Geographic is talking about brains instead of mountains and suchlike.

Or naked tribeswomen. What? That was a big part of the allure of the magazine lo these many years ago.

One guess I’ve got on why the dudes at the magazine are focusing on brains is that the fellows at the National Geographic tv channel are running a big special on brains starting this Sunday (Oct. 9 for the date impaired). Nah. Cross promotion probably has nothing to do with it.

Anyway, back to the article. While it’s beautiful to look at, coming as it does from photographic champ National Geographic, the ground it covers isn’t all that new. Basically, the magazine is looking at stuff we’ve talked about on this site before.

Teenage brains aren’t done, they’re more like works in progress. Thanks to advances in medical imaging techniques, we’re able to look inside those scarily moody teenage brains and watch the thinking bits at work. We can then compare them to adult brains and see how the teenage brain is in the process of winnowing out connections that don’t work, or don’t work well enough, and establishing connections between neurons that more simply help it do the work it needs to do.

This is an ongoing process, one that doesn’t finally complete until well into the teen dude and dudette’s early 20’s. Not only that, the article says, but teens also are more prone to taking risks that adult dudes would shy away from. Basically that’s all up to dopamine, one of the brain’s key neurotransmitters that has to do with pleasure and risk-seeking behavior.

When (brain) development proceeds normally, we get better at balancing impulse, desire, goals, self-interest, rules, ethics, and even altruism, generating behavior that is more complex and, sometimes at least, more sensible. But at times, and especially at first, the brain does this work clumsily. It’s hard to get all those new cogs to mesh.

Which is why teenagers often do things that, to them, seem perfectly sensible, but to outside observers (read, parents) seems like screamingly, hair-raisingly dangerous and stupid.

Even as brain function develops, it doesn’t do so on a smooth path. There’s tons of stops and starts, screeches into reverse, and all sorts of jaggedy movement. Just so you understand why your teenage dude was a pleasure to be with at breakfast, but by lunch it was all you could do not to strap him to his chair with duct tape and call the exorcist.

Teenage brains: Cthulhu ain’t got nothing on them.

Go. Read. May it bring you comfort that you’re not alone and that there really is a reason for it.

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