Category: Brain health

Lunar Effects on Mood and Biology Are Real

Last week in North America we saw the largest Super Moon of the year so far – it was called the “Super Snow Moon”. At the same time, I had several clients have strangely aberrant reactions to their neurofeedback sessions, as well as several friends on facebook making particularly emotional posts and complaining of feeling crazy, including myself. I thought it might be a reaction to how I felt the week before with a bunch of stressors, but then my father said something in passing about the supermoon and I wondered if there really might be a connection.

At the gym, a woman who is a former counselor who used to work at an emergency call center talked about how they would joke every full moon about how many more calls they expected to get. Others weighed in with their stories of eventful “coincidences” when you could essentially count out 9 months after a really bad storm and then there would be a bunch of babies suddenly being born around the same time (implying that couples tend to “get it on” more during storms, thus increasing the pregnancy rates at those times). Anyway, this could all just be our brains looking for connections where there may or may not be any, right? So I decided to take a look into the literature.

You see, my father has a Ph.D. physics. He actually warned me against writing this post since he worries that it’ll come across as pseudo-science and people will reject it and me and think we’re a bunch of dummies, I guess. I’m not entirely sure because I told him I write what I’m interested in and if he wants to write a post he is very welcome to do so. In any case, he is the one who mentioned the moon connection in the first place to me, so I find that interesting. He said that since the moon affects Earths magnetic field, it could also possibly affect any of us who are affected by Earth’s magnetic field. Well, we know that birds use Earth’s magnetic field to navigate, so why wouldn’t we have some connection with it? Why wouldn’t human biology also be affected by changes in earth’s magnetic field?

The answer is yes, human (and other animal and plant) biology is, indeed, affected by the the phases of the moon, which may be explained by sensing changes in the “magnetosphere” (the magnetic field surrounding the earth), but not so much by the gravitational or light effects by the moon. In a paper titled, “Lunar biological effects and the magnetosphere, Michael Bevington describes the evidence for lunar biological effects and how they are most-likely explained by the full moon traversing the moon’s “magnetotail”, an electromagnetic plasma sheet that extends out from the surface of the Earth opposite the sun (and its spiraling solar wind). When the moon crosses the magnetotail’s sheet, it attracts a large electrical charge, increasing the electric field on the dark side of the moon, which causes ions from the moon’s surface to transfer to the Earth’s magnetosphere and increase the Earth’s electromagnetic field, creating a magnetosphere feedback mechanism.

Here are some of the reported effects of the full moon on animal and plant biology (summarized in the above-mentioned article): tree diameter variation reflects a lunar rhythm; reproduction, changes in the stress hormone, glucocorticoid, and foraging by mice follow a lunar rhythm; epileptic seizures increase by over 1.5 times during a full moon, as well as the number of sudden unexpected deaths in epilepsy (highest [70%] during the full moon); the number of patients with violent and acute behavioral disturbances doubled during the full moon compared to other lunar phases; and a recent study showed that bipolar mood cycles correlated with lunar phases in 17 patients with rapid cycling bipolar affective disorder. Then, of course, there are many more anecdotal reports from doctors at hospitals and others who say that they see an increase in patients coming in during the full moon, etc.

The prevailing belief that the full moon affects human biology has been around for millennia, and many authors tend to cite the ancient Roman philosopher and naval and army commander, Pliny the Elder, as the first to make the connection between the lunar phases and the tides. He also was able to see the correlation with shellfish and other sea creature growth and suggested that the moon had nourishing powers. It used to be a given that humans believed in the biological effects of the full moon, but in the last century or so, scientists have had a hard time gathering enough evidence to demonstrate a causal effect, which is understandable seeing as all you really can do is maybe show a correlation due to not being able to isolate or control all the confounding factors involved. Even the correlative effects are not 100% penetrant (meaning, not everyone is affected by the full moon or other lunar phases). Having a scientific explanation and mechanism for how the lunar phases (particularly the full moon) affects biology is also important for determining the likelihood of biological effects. Unfortunately, most attempts at finding an explanation have fallen short, such as mechanisms involving the gravitational effects of the moon or the light effects of a full moon. I will not go into detail about why those fail, but I refer the reader to the initial article that I linked to this blog for such detailed information.

Suffice it to say, the best explanatory mechanism for how the full moon affects biology is its effects on Earth’s electromagnetic field. As described above, as the full moon traverses the magnetotail of the magnetosphere, it causes a feedback mechanism between the Earth and the Moon to increase the potential of the electric field on Earth by 1-7 V/m (measured by Michael Bevington). In fact, the measurements show that the greatest change in the potential occurs as the moon crosses into and out of the magnetotail plasma, which occurs 2-3 days before the full moon and 3-4 days after the full moon (Table 1 below and depicted in the figure on the right).

It is true that 1-7 V/m is a very weak electromagnetic field, but if you consider that the electrical potentials of the cerebral cortex, as measured from the scalp by electroencephalography (EEG), are generally in the micro-volt to milli-volt range (meaning 0.001 – 0.000001 V range), and that neurons are generally holding an electrical potential difference across its membrane around 70 mV (0.07 V), this suggests that 1-7 volts could have pretty dramatic effects on the human body. However, until very recently, scientists did not believe that the human body could perceive changes in electric fields (EFs) at such small levels. It was previously thought that humans can only detect static EFs (like that at the surface of the Earth) through its changes in electrical discharges on the surface of the body and their interaction with body hair or the creation of micro-shocks, but a recent meta-analysis concluded that “5% of the participants could detect a static EF below 20 kV/m, 33% of the subjects detected a static EF below 40 kV/m and 66% detected fields below 50 kV/m“. Of course, these EFs are much, much greater than that which were measured at the surface of the Earth by Michael Bevington at 1-7 V/m around the time of a full moon, so we still cannot claim that a large proportion of people can likely detect the 1-7 V/m change in the Earth’s EF during a full moon.

But last week’s full moon wasn’t any old full moon, it was a SUPER MOON, which is a special kind of full moon when the moon is at its closest point (perigee) to the Earth on its elliptical orbit around the Earth. Not only does this make the moon appear larger, but it also means that it passes through more of the magnetotail than a regular full moon, and it also increases the feedback mechanism and electromagnetic strength between the Earth and the moon. Therefore, we can hypothesize that the increase in electrical potential at the surface of the Earth would be much greater during a super full moon than during a regular full moon, although I don’t know how much greater that might be, but I’m sure someone with better math and physics skills than me could make a decent estimation (like my father!). Furthermore, the intensity of the EF at the surface of the Earth increases with moisture like rain or snow, which we certainly have in abundancy in the Pacific Northwest! So, altogether, it seems that we had two additional factors that increased the intensity of the effects of the full moon on us in the Pacific Northwest last week – a super moon and lots of rain and snow.

There are a few more pieces of this puzzle that I want to add but are hard to place in this post. One is that Michael Bevington’s measurements of the electric field potentials at the surface of the Earth are a little misleading, since the truth is that there is a gradient in the electrical potential from the surface of the Earth to the outer atmosphere and beyond. This gradient is typically between 0.3 – 120 V/m, while it is typically less than 1 V/m under 30 km from the Earth (in concurrence with Michael Bevington’s measurements). I just wanted to mention this because it does matter where you measure the EF potential (and it changes throughout the day/night, whether over land or water, etc.). I would like to measure the EF at the surface of the Earth during a regular full moon and also during a Super full moon to test my hypothesis that the super full moon increases the EF potential even more than a regular full moon (ideally I’d also measure the “apogee” full moon, aka “micromoon”, because that should change the potential even less).

A recent report suggests that humans might actually have a type of 6th sense in which we can perceive magnetic fields (particularly, the Earth’s magnetic field). Of course, this is not the same as detecting a static electric field, but geophysicist Joe Kirschvink at Caltech was able to demonstrate that a weak magenetic field could change the brainwaves of two dozen subjects in a Faraday cage (to block out ambient electromagnetic noise). Specifically, he observed a decrease in alpha waves (it makes sense that he looked at alpha waves since alpha is the easiest brainwave to detect in typical/”normal” humans). Since alpha brainwaves are considered “standby mode” brainwaves that increase synchronously when the brain is not processing information in that region, Kirschvink’s results indicate that these brains were being activated (or agitated) when sensing the changing magnetic fields, or it could merely mean that the brains were processing the perceptual information of the changing magnetic fields (thus, no longer in “standby mode”).

Lastly, I want to acknowledge the fact that there are people who are highly sensitive to or who have highly unusual interactions with electromagnetic fields. I’m referring to people who have many adverse reactions when using their cell phone, computer, or when working under fluorescent lights, etc., as well as people who may walk in a room and cause the lights to flicker or who may be constantly causing their electrical devices to blow fuses, etc. There are probably more of the former than the latter, but the existence of both is considered controversial in the scientific community, although there have been many studies trying to ascertain whether or not Electromagnetic (Hyper)Sensitivity exists as a real syndrome. I personally do not need a huge epidemiological study to know that there are some people who are highly sensitive to electromagnetic field (EMF) changes, but I can understand the need for such studies in order to determine what measures we may need to take to regulate the amount of electromagnetic radiation we are exposed to for public health’s sake. Otherwise, it’s a matter of individual choices, so why argue with someone if they say they are highly sensitive to electromagnetic radiation? If it doesn’t affect you, why do you need to judge whether or not their symptoms are really caused by the electromagnetic radiation? Plus, maybe the studies showing no correlation aren’t probing the problem appropriately. Such as, maybe there are more pieces of the puzzle missing when they try to do experiments in a lab where they alter the EF potential and ask the subjects if they can sense a difference or if they are having any adverse effects. The EF may be one of several factors that either add up and/or synergize to cause the adverse effects. In any case, I think, as a society, we are too quick to judge each other on our individual differences, especially when it comes to perception. One person can never truly know how another person perceives something, and that is just the way it is. It’s the natural limitation of being separate beings. We can, however, make predictions and test hypotheses to determine if pieces of our model of how differences in perception work, which, if confirmed, can only bolster the validity of our perceptions. This is, of course, the scientific approach to a subjective experience, which can never truly be understood scientifically.

The New Epidemic: Doctors Gaslighting their Patients

I got in a bit of a comment war on facebook yesterday because I got fed up with the snarkiness of the anti-vaccinations-triggering-autism crowd (a.k.a., the anti-anti-vaxxers, although I’m not an anti-vaxxer). Yes, the studies show that there is no widespread association between vaccinations and autism. However, on an individual basis, there does seem to be a connection of some sort, or else why on earth would it have become a controversy in the first place? If even one child developed autism or autistic characteristics (and, thus, they were diagnosed with being on the autism spectrum) as a consequence of vaccination, then I think we have an obligation to understand that connection. The main problem of this controversy is the implication of a widespread association between vaccination and autism. The research has unequivocally demonstrated that vaccines to do not cause autism in any significant proportion above the overall incidence of autism. However, this does not mean that a very small population of people (likely with a genetic or epigenetic susceptibility) may be triggered to develop autistic characteristics as a consequence of vaccination (and the immune response that it causes). However, I don’t want to discuss the particulars of this debate. This blog post is not about the epidemic of people not vaccinating their children due to fears of autism. This blog post is about a different epidemic that I think is possibly just as concerning: the epidemic of medical doctors not listening to the patients and essentially “gaslighting” them.

The term, “gaslighting”, is relatively new to me. I honestly wish I had heard of it years ago because it would’ve made me feel more sane having an actual term for the phenomenon I was experiencing with certain friends and exes. “Gaslighting” refers to when someone essentially tells you that what you experienced did not actually happen; it basically undermines your reality. This is what the Encyclopedia Brittanica says about “gaslighting”:

“Gaslighting [is] an elaborate and insidious technique of deception and psychological manipulation, usually practiced by a single deceiver, or “gaslighter,” on a single victim over an extended period. Its effect is to gradually undermine the victim’s confidence in his own ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or reality from appearance, thereby rendering him pathologically dependent on the gaslighter in his thinking or feelings.”

A still from the 1944 movie, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, from which the term “gaslight” is derived.

Interestingly, the term is actually derived from the 1944 movie, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer (including Angela Lansbury’s screen debut). In the film, the main character, Paula (Bergman), is slowly driven insane by her newlywed husband, Gregory (Boyer), who manipulates her reality in order to drive her insane so he can steal her cache of hidden jewels.

In this post, I’m not suggesting that doctors are intentionally trying to drive their patients mad by ignoring their reality or second-guessing it or trying to re-write it into a reality they can more easily explain, but I think they do it unintentionally for very selfish reasons, such as not wanting to appear like they don’t have all the answers. I believe there is a widespread problem with medical doctors and many in the medical establishment either ignoring their patients or part of what the patient tells them or trying to manipulate their patients’ stories into a story that fits their explainable paradigms. I think this is a very dangerous problem that pushes people through the cracks of the healthcare system. In fact, people die from this type of behavior.

A 20-year-old rugby teammate of mine passed away from a brain aneurysm last month. She had been suffering from some medical issues – all of which I do not know because I was not close enough to her – and I gathered that she had been seeing many doctors about these issues. When I saw her last in October, she looked like she may have had a stroke because she seemed to only be able to speak out of half of her mouth – it reminded me of how my Grandma spoke due to paralysis in half of her face (due to a surgical accident when the surgeon accidentally severed her facial nerve on one side). The issue is that it was a change in degree, not a binary change (i.e., appearing after not being there at all). What I mean is that since I met her two years ago she had this side-mouth way of talking, but it was more severe in October than previous times I’d seen her. I honestly am pretty upset with myself for not pressing harder about my concerns, but I did ask her if she was doing alright, health-wise. She told me that she wasn’t and that she was seeing many doctors, so I was hopeful that somebody was dealing with this concern. Then two months later, she’s dead from a brain aneurysm. At the funeral, her mother hinted at a pending fight with the healthcare system, that there may be lawsuits coming, and that the doctors didn’t listen to their cries for help, didn’t give them the care or tests that they asked for. If she had an MRI, there is a pretty decent chance that they could’ve seen a growing aneurysm and done something about it like surgery. Part of the story is that my teammate was a person of color and working class, and she was on Oregon’s medicaid, OHP (Oregon Health Plan). In general, people of color (and other marginalized people) and working class people do not get the same level of care as white people from the middle and upper classes. It’s a very sad reality. It must change. Universal healthcare would help change this reality, although it wouldn’t be all that needs to happen to help change it – doctors need to be aware of their biases and to actively try to counter them.

I have another friend who is very large, technically considered “obese” according to her BMI, although she is also very muscular and strong, which is always missed if you use BMI as the sole measurement for obesity. She has a lot of chronic pain issues with incidences of syncope and other malfunctions in her autonomic nervous system. She has spinal and cranial MRIs showing all sorts of pathologies that could explain at least a large fraction of her symptoms, but the doctors have predominantly focused on her weight, as if that’s the primary reason for her problems. It has taken her over eight years for a medical doctor to take her seriously enough to finally look beyond her weight! I was helping her investigate her health issues last year and I even attended a couple of doctor’s appointments with her and witness firsthand how disrespectfully the doctors treated her. I even had a neuroscience textbook with me and had to correct the spinal surgeon when he said that the bladder has nothing to do with the spine. It turns out that the nerves that innervate and control the bladder travel down the spine and exit the spinal column around the same regions in which she was having pain and which show pathologies in the MRIs. He ignored me despite the fact that I just proved his statement wrong. I am not an M.D., so I do not get the same level of respect for my knowledge and intelligence from M.D.s as other M.D.s do, despite my expertise in molecular, cell, developmental, and biochemical biology (MCDB) and my ability to perform and comprehend medical science and research.

There is a growing contingent of medical doctors that are changing the way they interact with their patients, but in general I am not impressed – in fact, I’m pretty concerned about the general attitude of medical doctors towards their patients. “Bedside manner” can refer to many types of communication, but what I’m particularly concerned with is doctors listening to their clients, believing that their clients are telling you the truth as much as they can tell it, and having the self-esteem and curiosity to investigate further when they don’t have a ready-made answer to the patient’s problem. Scientists tend to have more curiosity about the unknown, whereas I think medical doctors tend to want to portray a sense of all-knowing and security about what they know, but this leaves little room for growth – of medical science, of knowledge, of character, etc.

We all need to work together to hold our medical doctors accountable for listening to our stories, for putting in the effort into our healthcare. If they do not listen and they are not curious about what ales you and invested in finding it out when it does not fit into one of the diseases or disorders they know, find a new doctor who does.

Protein Waste Management in Neurodegenerative Diseases and Sleep

When I was in graduate school for molecular biology, one of the labs in my department studied chaperones, which are protein enzymes that assist in the folding of proteins into their functional, three-dimensional shapes. That lab (Dr. Jeff Brodsky was the Principal Investigator/P.I.) used the simplest eukaryotic cell model system, Saccharomyces cerevisiae (a.k.a. baker’s yeast), to study chaperones. I secretly thought to myself, “who cares” and “why would anyone get excited about studying that?”

But now I feel a little silly that I thought those disparaging things about what the Brodsky lab studied/studies because, as it turns out, protein misfolding and aggregation is a common characteristic of neurodegenerative diseases. The problem is that these aggregates of proteins do not get degraded like most misfolded proteins, nor do they get cleaned up and washed away in the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) through the glymphatic system during sleep. Thus, these aggregates end up causing the neurons and glial cells to kill themselves (called apoptosis).

Neurodegenerative Diseases and their Associated Misfolded and Aggregated Proteins

The Brodsky lab studied chaperones in yeast, but sometimes they’d also try to bring human health relevance to their research, and when they did that they would study the protein that is misfolded in cystic fibrosis – CFTR (Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane conductance Regulator). The reason I bring up CFTR in a post about neurodegeneration is to contrast what happens in lung cells (ionocytes) that express the misfolded CFTR protein to what happens in brain cells expressing the proteins that are involved in neurodegenerative diseases. The bottom line is that the cystic fibrosis lung cells do not end up killing themselves like the neurodegenerative brain cells do, despite the unfolded protein response (UPR) being activated in both cell types/conditions, which typically initiates programmed cell death (apoptosis).

One thing to keep in mind when comparing lung and brain diseases is that there are many different types of lung diseases that have many different types of mechanisms, but nearly all brain-related diseases (with the exception of brain cancers, for the most part) appear to have the same type of mechanism: protein misfolding, aggregation, and lack of clearing the aggregates, which leads to cell death. What this means is that brain cells (neurons and glia) are particularly sensitive to protein aggregates – these aggregates must be cleaned up ASAP or else the cells will kill themselves, leaving extracellular aggregates (sometimes the aggregates are secreted by the cell instead of killing itself, too), which can also inhibit neuronal signaling.

So how do we get rid of these protein aggregates? Well, usually, they are washed out of the interstitium (the extracellular space between cells in the brain) with the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) while we are asleep. In fact, researchers suggest that this “waste management” is the primary function of sleep – to get rid of unnecessary proteins that were made during the day through proteolysis and clearing via the CSF and the glymphatic system, the recently discovered macroscopic waste clearance system through parivascular tunnels in the brain (created by astrocytes/astroglia). Furthermore, these protein aggregates can also trigger inflammation, which causes multiple brain toxicities.

When we do not sleep very much or very deeply, the brain does not get enough time to wash away its waste products, thus causing their accumulation and degenerative effects. Thus, there is a higher risk of developing dementia in people who have poor sleep habits. Therefore, sleep is not just for your beauty or comfort – it’s important for your brain function which means it’s vital for life. Lack of sleep kills.

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