Neurofeedback Blog

All that relates to neurofeedback and brain health

How to Transform (or “Transmutate”) Negative Energy into Positive, Healing Energy

I tricked you (not really). The title of this post is ambitious, as if I have all the answers, but the truth is that I am searching for this “holy grail” of personal and spiritual enlightenment, as well. I also think no one has the solution, so it’s not actually a trick – it’s just a hope, a faith that it can be done, that one can take negative energy that either originates from inside of us or even from outside of us, maybe even directed at us, and transform it (the new age community says, “transmutate”, and I’m not exactly sure why except their love for the word, “alchemy”, maybe because it’s not a science but more of a pseudoscience?) into positivity, light, and healing energy.

As a counselor, am I supposed to know how to do this? As a healer, aren’t I supposed to be doing this already? Maybe. I don’t think there’s ever a definitive, all-encompassing answer, at least one that’s specific and practical enough to actually be of use. I mean, one could say, “love it all” – and, yes, people do say that, in fact. Someone that I really appreciated last year as I was dealing with the fallout of my divorce who wrote a book, How to Be Loving, says “love it all” throughout the book. It helped me at the time…but the reality is that there are specifics in life that we are trying to get through, and it’s not enough to say, “love it all“! Ok, I hear you, but…what do I do when someone’s attacking my reputation and that’s affecting my ability to make money and my livelihood? How can I love that?!? How can I transform that?!? Or what about my (ex) wife who kicked me out of my home and left me alone without a partner, a family, a house, and our dogs to retreat to my elderly parents’ basement? How can I love that?!? How can I transform that?!? There are more examples…of course there are many more!

So it’s taken me a year of work to get here, but I do see the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe I’m opening into that light, in fact. I don’t want to speak too soon about that, but it’s been since around the winter solstice (December 21/22, 2023) that I’ve been starting to feel lighter, more stable, and more healed, so I feel confident in thinking that maybe I have made it to the other side at this point. It’s good that I’ve decided to have “no contact” with my ex-wife for at least a month, probably longer if she lets me. There’s a lot of healing that can come when you decide to remove the knife from your heart. That sounds dramatic, but I’ll leave it because divorce is dramatic.

Paul Simon said it well in his song, Graceland – “she says losing love is like a window to your heart/everybody sees your blown apart/everybody sees the wind blow”. Divorce feels like a murder scene splashed all over the newspapers. You can’t hide from it; it feels like a failure everyone can see. And yet…about half of first marriages end in divorce, then the statistic increases for 2nd marriages and so on, so why does it feel so shameful to be divorced when it’s so common? But we know why…it’s embedded in our society, derived from religion – even if it’s not seen as a sin, it’s often seen as breaking a sacred vow between you and God – I’m a counselor, I know better! I would never shame anyone else who got divorced…but I still feel it inside me. I wanted to hide under a rock, and I kind of did for a whole year. In some ways, I still am hiding…but not necessarily on purpose now. I just decided to get off social media, essentially for good.

Back to the point: How do we transform negativity and low vibrational energy into healing positivity, light, and love?

First, I think, you start with your own negative energy that resides inside of you. It’s critical not to pretend it isn’t there, and not to run away from feeling it. In fact, make sure you feel it, asking what it’s trying to tell you. I am not the originator of this idea that our emotions are signals that are trying to get our attention. From a purely biological and evolutionary perspective, this idea makes sense. Consider emotions like fear and disgust – they’re warning you to stay away from something that is likely to hurt you or is already hurting you. It is protective; it is meant to signal you to retreat (or “withdraw”, using the preferred word in studies) from something or someone. Joy and happiness are feelings that signal you to move closer, to attract you towards something or someone (or “approach”). Therefore, when you feel something, it’s important to figure out what it’s trying to tell you, and if that is congruent with what is actually happening. This latter part (about congruency) is also crucial because, for many people, their emotions do not match with the reality around them, and are actually created by memories of similar yet different experiences, most likely from past traumatic experiences. This is one of the long-lasting effects of trauma, by the way – it distorts your perception of reality. Even in these instances, though, your emotions are telling you something – maybe not something accurately about the present, but something about the past that you have either unresolved, unprocessed, or about which you just need to have an awareness.

The act of feeling your emotions fully to their completion is the primary act of transformation. Even anger, when felt fully, will inevitably reveal the child (or “ego”, or whatever you want to call it – our innermost, naked, child-like self) crying out beneath it for love. It can only be resolved and completed when that child is loved, and that love can only come from one place to truly resolve it – from within, from the self, from the deep reservoir of infinite love that we are made of, available to every single one of us at all times, albeit seemingly hidden much of the time. Even when you are given love from an external source – like a mother, a friend, or a lover – you need to accept the love in, and that requires that you love yourself enough to accept the love from another. Let’s be clear and honest, though, that these harder feelings don’t go away forever once felt one time – they can come back over and over, and sometimes in quick succession. It’s still important to allow yourself to feel them through, over and over again. And yes, that means you need to keep loving yourself each time, while again and again that feeling of self-love fades and then the other feelings come back – over and over. It’s like the ocean waves hitting the beach – sometimes it can feel like you’re being hit with a constant barrage of huge stormy waves, one after the other, and like you may even drown…but you won’t. Just keep going because it will inevitably calm down. That’s the one thing you can always count on – that things will change. And this pattern of feeling your emotions is completely normal. Then sometimes it’s not like that and that’s normal, too.

How do you know when you’ve completed feeling the emotion? Usually you come back to a homeostatic state, typically a relatively calm state. Your breathing returns to normal, the tears run dry, you might even be tired if it was a particularly agitating emotion like anger or panic or a particularly intense crying session. If allowed to run its course, feeling the emotion typically doesn’t last more than a few minutes. You can test this out by timing yourself the next time you have a big emotion coming on – set your timer and allow yourself to just feel it to completion. My counselor says to try not to ‘egg it on’ by adding more thoughts to it over and over…and I realized that if I didn’t have any thoughts at all, my big emotion would pretty much go away, but that didn’t always feel right, either. So maybe there’s a happy medium? Maybe allow yourself to think the associated thoughts enough until you get to the point where you can’t do it anymore, and maybe then don’t ‘egg it on’ further? That might be hard, but I think there has to be a way of gauging when it’s just becoming an unproductive rumination and when it has actually helped to push through the feeling.

For me, almost all of my heavy, “negative”, emotions end up with me crying – usually balling – my eyes out. Certainly sadness does this, but so does anger and anxiety, fear, shame, etc. I always end up crying and crying. Before I got divorced, it had been years – maybe even over a decade – since I had really done a lot of crying, and I really didn’t cry that easily anymore. I would say, “I’ve cried so much in my life – enough for many lifetimes – that I don’t need to cry anymore”. I thought I was pretty much done with it, and maybe taking testosterone was also making it so I couldn’t cry as easily anymore (there’s actual research showing that people with more testosterone cry less). Suffice it to say, the separation and divorce reminded me that nope, I’m not done with going through periods of crying/balling all the time. What I am done with, though, is denying myself the opportunity to feel my feelings fully when they come up.

Ok, there are caveats to being able to feel your feelings fully at that very moment they may start to come up. On a practical level, we all have these – such as having them come up while you’re at work or in a meeting or driving a car (or doing something else that would be dangerous if you didn’t keep paying your full attention on it), etc. First, I will say that, yes, you can put the feelings on hold, temporarily pushing them away so you can focus on what is at hand – they call this “compartmentalization” in my field. However, there is a danger in doing this too often, and especially if you get really good at it. But let’s cover the best case scenario first – the best case scenario is that you push it away only temporarily, but once you are available – such as your client leaves and you have at least a 10 min break until your next client or meeting – then you allow yourself to come back to that feeling and really sit with it and feel it. But now let’s cover what happens if you don’t do that. The next best thing is that the feeling/emotion will come back to you at some point on its own – this happens all the time. The problem with this is that it usually doesn’t come back with the same level of intensity or in the same “innocent” way – it’s usually worse, or compounded with other feelings that had been pushed away, as well, making it a complicated mess that requires more time and detangling to process. The worst case scenario is that the feeling/emotion gets locked away for long-term storage. This happens for people who become experts at not feeling their feelings. They have all sorts of reasons why they say they don’t have the time or energy to actually feel their feelings, and then they lose the ability to do it. Unless they end up digging them back up someday through trauma therapy, EMDR, neurofeedback, etc., what will happen is that the feelings/emotions get stored in their body and begin to eat away at them. They have health problems, typically auto-immune-related that often become chronic. This, of course, is in addition to mental health issues. All of it is related to neuroinflammation, and I will have another blog post about that soon that I started writing in 2019. This is a warning: DO NOT GET GOOD AT IGNORING, DENYING, OR PUSHING DOWN YOUR FEELINGS/EMOTIONS. It will kill you.

The good news is that even if you do get good at ignoring, denying, or pushing down your feelings/emotions, if you decide to change that to get good at feeling your feelings again, you can. There are a multitude of different therapeutic modalities that can help you make this change, and neurofeedback is one of them. The most important aspect is making the decision to make that change, and having the faith that it can be done – but even if you don’t fully have that faith yet, just making the decision to try is faith enough.

You may not know that you’ve made this transformation of the negative energy inside of you into positive, lighter, more loving energy until after you’ve been doing it already for awhile. You also won’t ever be finished with it, so don’t think that you’ll wake up some day and suddenly not have any negative energy to have to process inside of you. Although, I’ll concede that maybe the Dalai Lama or Ghandi or Mother Teresa and the likes of people like them may get to a point of not feeling any negative energy inside of them, although I really doubt it. I really believe that dealing with our own internal negative or dark or heavy energy and emotions is an inherent aspect of the human experience. So if you don’t have that, then you are not human, and you are no longer relevant to the human experience.

So here’s the summary of how I believe you can transform the negative emotions and energy inside of you into positive, lighter, more loving feelings and energy:

1 – notice your feelings/emotions

2 – figure out what they’re trying to tell you, including if they’re relevant to your current circumstances or if they’re triggered by a trauma experience that you need to process or just be aware of.

3 – feel the feelings/emotions fully, to their completion

4 – self-soothe by allowing yourself to feel loved – by yourself, by the universe or god or whatever you want to call it, by someone else, etc.

  • and there you go, you’ve transformed it.
  • repeat as many times as necessary, knowing that the repeats will slow down and you will feel better.

Taking it a leap further, how do we transform externally-derived negativity and low vibrational energy into healing positivity, light, and love?

Currently, this is what I’m working on. I assume this is what people like the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa and Jesus (and his Mother Mary) were particularly good at. Does that mean I think I could be the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, or Jesus (if he existed, but I’m trying not to offend – let’s just talk about him as if he did and that he was at least somewhat as he’s been described, but also assuming he was a human being, too, like the rest of us)? Yes. The answer is yes. I think we all can be like them if they were human. Do I think I am? No, not at all. My ex-wife probably wouldn’t have divorced me if I was. Or maybe she would’ve for a different reason – maybe I would’ve been too boring, in that case, but who knows. We don’t get much of an idea what kind of personality Jesus had – maybe he was a pretty cool guy, like King Missile sings in their song, Jesus Was Way Cool.

My intuition says that transforming externally-derived negative energy is a lot like transforming internally-derived negative energy. What often happens when someone slings their negativity at you – by yelling at you, saying something mean and hurtful towards you, physically hurting you, or even ignoring. dismissing, or neglecting you – we absorb that energy and are hurt by it. Then, the worst part is that many of us turn around and give that negative/dark energy back, either to that same person or to another person or another being (maybe even an animal or pet), or even sometimes to inanimate objects (such as punching the wall or kicking or breaking something). This is a type of transference, which is not quite “transformation”, but it does move the energy, just not in a positive way. Obviously, this is not the best way to deal with externally-derived negative energy….so how do we deal with that energy in a positive way?

Well, for the last few months, I’ve been adding a little addendum to my morning meditation where I do a little “prayer” to ask archangel Michael, who I learned is the archangel of protection, to “pour [his] blue light of protection onto me”, filling my auric field, and protecting me from negative energy from the outside coming in and hurting me, as well as protecting me and others from the negative energy inside of me from hurting me and others, but supporting me while I excavate such negative energy, and transform it into the light to empower and uplift me, and then be released. It dawned on me recently that maybe I could also consider doing that transformation with the externally-derived negative energy that I’m asking to be protected from. But I do think that the first step in that process is to ask to be protected from it – do this before you try to transform it.

By the way, we do need to ask for protection. We need to ask for help when we want it. The gift of free will means that we are not automatically given help or protection or guidance in order to allow us to have that free will…but if we want help, protection, or guidance, we can have it (to the extent that it doesn’t interfere with our pre-life contracts and the goals set by our higher selves); we just need to ask for it. This is important. Many people who have had a spiritual experience (such as a Near Death Experience) report back that this is all they needed to do…but until they asked for that help, they didn’t get it.

I’m still trying to figure out how to transform the externally-derived negative energy, which is why I think I need to continue to ask for protection from allowing it in for me to absorb. However, part of me thinks that the transformation may require me to allow it in – at least to some degree – but to then transform it into the light rather than into negative energy that I now direct out towards someone or something else. I’ll be clear, this is risky. It’s high level spiritual transformation to be able to do this, and it’s not for everyone. In fact, it may not be for most people – hence, why most of us are not the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, or Jesus. The risk, of course, is exactly what happens most of the time when we are hurt – we sling that hurt right back at someone or something else. Therefore, I think most people will do best to just ask to be protected from it altogether without attempting to transform it. To be fair, it really isn’t your job to have to transform someone else’s negative energy for them. And…even if you can, it doesn’t mean they will subsequently transform their negative energy, which is a huge caveat and why it may not be worth attempting at all.

Ok, I thought about it more over the weekend, and it hit me. Yes, transforming externally-derived negativity and low vibrational energy is a lot like transforming that which is internally-derived. However, there is a key aspect that is different: it is not all ours to process. Again, the first step is to recognize how you feel, but not necessarily jump into feeling it quite yet. Next, it’s important to figure out what that feeling is telling you, and if it is yours or if it is someone else’s feeling, really. For instance, maybe someone yelled at you, calling you a name, because you made some sort of mistake (like you left a mess in the kitchen that you forgot to pick up). You feel hurt; the name-calling was mean – that was theirs – but the mistake, ok, yes, that is yours. The hurt is the mixture of the name-calling and the embarrassment (or even the shame) of making that mistake. In this instance, allow yourself to be protected from the hurt of the name-calling because that is theirs and it hurts them, too, but you can’t see that immediately; but then you can allow yourself to process the mistake that you made, and the embarrassment that you feel for making that mistake. In that, feel that embarrassment – or, even, the shame – and allow yourself to complete that feeling where you self-soothe and feel love for yourself, in the end, forgiving yourself for that mistake. You may even have the calling to apologize for the mistake to this person, if they are receptive, and maybe work on how to avoid it again in the future – but that isn’t a necessary part of this process (but it can be part of the apology or self-correction). Self-shaming, on the other hand, is counter-productive and will not allow you to process through to the end. It is important to remember that you are human, and making mistakes are part of being human, and they are the primary way in which we have the opportunity to grow. It is important to allow yourself to be human, and to forgive yourself for making mistakes, particularly when you use that mistake for self-growth.

The truly advanced part of the transformation is here: for their part, where they called you a name, you can send them compassion (i.e., love). Here is why: when someone shoots daggers at you, what they’re really doing, is shooting daggers at themselves, but stabbing you on the way, as well. That negative energy is not leaving them, it’s actually multiplying as they send it towards you. They aren’t doing it because they know that, they’re doing it because they don’t understand this fact yet. They’re doing it because it’s an immature survival instinct that is inherent to the mechanisms of biological evolution. The problem is that it doesn’t achieve what they’re hoping it could achieve – which is to get rid of that negative, low vibrational energy inside of them. So if you understand this, and you are able to not absorb that particular aspect of their negative energy, then you can see it for what it is and see them as the hurting child that they are being in that moment. And just send them compassion (and maybe some forgiveness, as well). You don’t need to hug them (in fact, in many cases, they won’t accept your hug or other offerings of affection), but you could just sit with them and tell them you love them and you’re sorry that they’re hurting. You could say, “I love you and I’m sorry you’re hurting right now, but I need to leave to take care of myself right now. I will return when I am better able to be with you later.” This may be the best option. I’m unsure of exactly what would convey the compassion; it may just be the tone of voice or your posture or the slight expression on your face. Do not abandon them but always take care of yourself and your needs first. Eventually, you will need to express that it was not ok that they called you a name, and if they do not readily give you an apology and make attempts to change, then you may need to take more steps up the ladder of escalating consequences in order to take care of yourself and your own needs.

Here is the summary for how to transform (or “transmutate” if you prefer the new age language) externally-derived negativity and low vibrational energy into healing energy, light, and love:

1 – Recognize how you feel.

2 – Ask what that feeling is trying to communicate to you – first, asking if that feeling is yours or theirs; if it’s fairly yours (meaning that it comes from what you did, what you created, being as honest as possible with yourself), then continue on, but if it’s not yours, drop it. If it’s theirs, ask for help to let it go and be protected from it – and, if you are so inclined, move on to step (5).

3 – feel your emotions/feelings fully, to completion where you self-soothe and self-love in the end. Forgive yourself.

4 – take accountability, apologize, and make amends, if appropriate. It may be that you do it just for yourself, but if the other is receptive, you could try to do it for them, as well.

5 – For what is theirs and not yours, you can consider empathizing with their pain and hurt, show them compassion, and forgive them if you feel so moved. This is optional and may not always be accessible to you; it’s important to know that it’s ok that it’s not accessible to you. In those cases, lean heavily into asking for protection from their hurt/pain/anger, etc. so that you can not be affected by it. Sometimes this is the best you can do, and it’s way better than taking their hurt and anger, etc., and throwing it back at them or someone or something else. It’s better to just not let it affect you at all.

Ok, so these are my thoughts and opinions. Nothing I’ve said here are facts, so take what you want and leave the rest. Maybe you disagree with everything I’ve said, and that’s obviously a perfectly valid option. If there’s a chance that it could help someone else with their challenges, then it validates why I am posting this.

[The art at the top is a photo of my piece, “The Sacred Heart of Mary”, with “Let it be” written on the edges (unseen). Collage and acrylic on canvas. 2023.]

Life Is Hard and Beautiful at the Same Time

It’s been another year since my last post and I’m now separated from my wife and we are going through the divorce process. Life has been rough this past year and will likely continue to be rough for awhile for me. In any case, I’m trying to look at everything through the lens of Divine Love and Loving Kindness. It’s hard work when you’re hurting. I recently read the book, How to Be Loving, by Danielle Laporte, and I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone who is going through a “dark night of the soul”, as I am. It is the light that is holding me and carrying me through this difficult time.

The part of me that hurts and wants to lash out is my ego side, and that hurt and wanting to lash out is giving me information about what I need – mostly Loving Kindness and Compassion, and I can only control getting it from myself. I am learning to pay attention to my ego but also to understand that it is only part of who I am, not all of me, and that I am also Divine Love and I can transform my thoughts and energy into loving thoughts and energy, which will attract more love into my life. When new age people talk about manifesting using your thoughts, they really mean manifesting through feeling how you want to feel and bringing that energy into you, not waiting for it to come from elsewhere, although it will be attracted to the energy we create – which, if we want to feel loved, we need to create that loving feeling inside ourselves. This is why it’s so hard – if you do not feel loved, then it’s hard to create that feeling, right? But we all have and are made of love, so it’s always there – it’s just a matter of unblocking ourselves from it. This “unblocking” usually means being able to see the ego, care for it, yet also setting it aside or holding aside in order to engage more with your “higher self” and Divine Love. I’m definitely working at this and it is hard. There’s no way around it – the more pain your ego is in, the harder it is to feel that Divine Love, while at the same time, the more critical it is to figure out how to feel it or you’ll be in that pain for longer.

I’m currently not able to do much talk therapy, but I am still doing neurocounseling/neurofeedback where the focus is on brain health to treat all brain-related challenges, including mental health challenges. I can share my experience as that may relate and help my clients, but I am not really much of a talk therapist – I am more about finding strategies to improve the brain health. We learned in grad school that the primary reason people come into counseling is for self-disclosure, meaning that they really just want to get things off their chest. This is why a lot of talk therapists just listen and have minimal feedback, while others have more feedback and guidance, which, depending on the therapist and the therapeutic relationship, can be extremely helpful or not so helpful. I am not confident in my guidance at this time as my own life is in shambles (again). I’m in a process of spiritual transformation, however, and there’s a good possibility that this will significantly improve my ability to do talk therapy if that’s what my clients want. However, many clients come to us because they have done a lot of talk therapy and they feel like they need something more because they’re still feeling stuck or like they’ve hit a plateau in talk therapy – this is when neurocounseling really shines as a great adjunct to talk therapy. It’s also particularly helpful for children who do not really engage in talk therapy – they get to watch videos on YouTube or Netflix or play video games for about an hour and that their therapy (well, as it’s connected to the neurofeedback software and EEG sensors on their head).

For anyone else out there going through this type of turmoil, I see you. You see me. We can do this. Find love and beauty in everything and you will grow your capacity to love and feel loved.

Waking Up Out of a 3-Year Stupor

I’m not really waking up out of a three-year stupor, but I am finally posting after about three years, maybe four! The reason I haven’t posted has everything to do with the fact that I was in another graduate school program, earning my Master’s in mental health counseling so I can earn my license and work independently. Well, I finished my degree in August, 2021, but there have been so many other things going on, as well, including getting married in July, 2021, becoming an instant-parent of two kids – one is 15 and the other is 8, both currently identify as boys. My wife and I have also taken on helping care for my 6-yo nephew a few days a week, as well! Then, of course, there’s been this global pandemic for the past two years! So yes, as my favorite teacher (middle school English) once said, my life is never boring!

My Family

Here is a photo of us from our wedding. I am wearing a custom pink suit. It was a magical day, very beautiful and right in the lull in the pandemic when we initially thought it might be over, after many people got vaccinated and right before the Delta variant began to spread rampantly. It was a very hopeful day, full of love and joy!

In any case, I’ve continued to work and see clients while I’ve been in grad school and throughout the pandemic. I just wanted to post a short “I’m back!” post or at least “I’m not dead yet!” post to say I am here and I will be posting more brain-related material. I’ve been meaning to post about neuroinflammation since before the pandemic, but it’s even more relevant now. Let me say one thing: neuroinflammation is not just part of the etiology of neurodegenerative diseases as much of the literature (and biopharma) seems to be focused on – it’s likely part of the etiology of every brain-related disorder/disease/challenge/issue/whatever from epilepsy and migraines to depression, anxiety, psychosis, ADHD, etc. Whether or not it is the only cause is an open question and I would suggest that it probably is not for many challenges/issues, but it is likely part of the etiology, whether it be an initiating cause or a consequence of some other initiating cause (such as genetic or epigenetic susceptibility, traumatic brain injury, diet, drugs, etc.). I will write a post but it’s likely going to have to be a series of posts about neuroinflammation since it’s a huge topic and I’m very interested in it.

As the sea turtle slowly makes its way to the beach to rest, it soaks in the sun and restores its energy. When it’s ready, it returns to the sea to explore, find food and a mate. Like the sea turtle, I’m slowly making my way back into the blogosphere to share my knowledge and ideas about the human brain and consciousness. I already found a mate, so no more need for that!

How Honesty Changes Over A Lifetime

I’ve been applying to grad school programs again (for counseling so I can earn my mental health license so I don’t need to work under someone else’s mental health license), which I’m learning is a lot different now that I’m 42 (well, in two weeks) than when I last applied to grad school when I was 21-23. It’s not just that everything’s online now (including the entire programs to which I am applying), but I’m different, too. The thing is, 20 years ago I had no idea what it would be like during and after grad school. One might say that I was naive, but I think it’s more accurate to say that I was inexperienced, and now I am experienced. Obviously, I’m not experienced in everything, or else I wouldn’t need to go back to grad school, but I’m definitely significantly more experienced in life than I was 20 years ago. So when I had an interview (an online group interview) with the first program for which I applied in December, I found that my honest answers were different from the honest answers of my fellow applicants who were much younger than me. It’s not that I don’t think they were being honest, but I do think that they couldn’t be as honest as me due to not having as much experience.

For instance, one of the questions that was asked was “how do you deal with negative feedback?” Well, first, I should’ve asked the faculty member what she meant by that question because it didn’t become apparent to me until the end of the interview that it was a question about how we deal with feedback from our mentors/teachers/superiors, and not what I took it to mean which was someone complaining about me or saying something negative to me about me. So my answer was that my first instinct is to feel a little defensive (as I assume most people feel since that’s often how they behave), but that I’ve learned to take a step back and try to understand if I agree with them or not and if it’s something I need to change, but that I generally understand that negative or positive feedback usually says more about the person giving it than necessarily about the person receiving it. As you might guess, the others in the group basically said that they love negative feedback and use it to grow and become better people, blah blah blah. I could’ve said that (and I probably would’ve choked on it in my throat because of the heavy b.s. and brown-nosing factor), and I probably would’ve said that 20 years ago when I didn’t want anyone to know that I had any imperfections (as if they couldn’t see them, anyway). Now I am confident that even with my imperfections, I’m no worse than anyone else, and I am still a good person, so I wasn’t shy about admitting that I don’t like negative feedback. Had she asked how I deal with “constructive criticism”, which is what I think she was trying to ask, then my answer would’ve been closer to what was clearly the “correct” answer.

Anyway, I was not accepted into that program and I’m 99% sure it was all because of that interview when I was being honest. Now, mind you, I’ve been rejected from things before so it’s not that I’m unable to grasp that I can be rejected, but this was truly a surprise because I understand that interviews like this for grad school are often just as much about selling the program to us as it is about selling ourselves to them. To be fair, I had already decided that I wouldn’t continue with the program since I hadn’t checked the price before I applied (it was a free application, so I half-whimsically applied without investigating the logistics too carefully) and it’s over $100k for the 2.5 year program! Holy moly that’s expensive and not worth it since the median income for a licensed, professional counselor is in the mid $40k range. I think it’s pretty insane to put that kind of debt on someone who’s never going to make that kind of money!

This actually brings me to another honest answer I had that probably was to my detriment – the faculty member asked what our biggest obstacle to success is and my first (and most truthful) answer was MONEY! MONEY! MONEY! Because I wouldn’t need to go back to school and get a degree in counseling if I had enough money to sustain me so I could give everyone neurofeedback for free! I probably would still need to get my mental health license, but I wouldn’t need to worry about the cost of going back to school! Alas, I am not independently wealthy, and thus, I need to charge for my services, etc. But after I said that money was my biggest obstacle I said that I also have a more self-reflective answer since I know that’s what they’re looking for and I went on to talk about how “focus” has been an issue for me in my life which my grad professors brought up and then my post-doctoral mentors reiterated. (Of course, what they really wanted was for me to do nothing other than research at the lab all day every day because that’s the expectation – and one of the reasons I left research – which I tend to think is rather unhealthy, especially for someone like me who has a lot of different interests and abilities.) Anyway, I still stand by original answer and I know everyone knows it’s the gosh-darn truth. Money is almost always the biggest obstacle to doing what you want to do in this life, which is how I define success. For instance, going back to grad school is going to cost a lot of money and I’m making my choice of which program to go into based largely on the cost of the program due to not being able to take on such massive debt.

So I was thinking about how my honest answers have changed over my lifetime so far, and I think it’s something we need to consider when we ask others to be honest with us. The less mature, less experienced people are, the less likely their honesty will be all that true. They will be as honest as they can be, but it may not even be their truth. So we just need to be aware of that and maybe adjust our expectations when we ask different people for their honest answers.

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.

Sex Differences in Response to and Recovery from Stress

One of my favorite Radiolab episodes was from Season 2, episode 4, and is called Where Am I?” [All of the best episodes are from their first few seasons, in my opinion. In more recent years – since 2008 or so – the episodes have been less science-y and more storytelling with only a very slim scientific connection. Maybe it’s more enjoyable for the lay public, but it’s pretty sad to me because, although I love storytelling podcasts, I miss those big questions that Radiolab used to tackle. Now it’s just another This American Life, but not as good as This American Life.]

Between 6:00 – 9:00 min into the episode is a segment about how we feel ourselves on the inside (called interoception) and how that helps us define our emotions. One theory, in fact, is that all emotions are really interpretations of our visceral senses, which are the inner senses of our body, signaled to our brain via the cranial nerves, particularly the vagus nerve (aka cranial nerve ten/CN X), as first postulated by William James and called the James-Lange Theory of emotions. After that, around 9:00 – 14:00 into the episode, is a mini dramatic sequence where Robert Krulwich argues with his wife on the phone, then they appear to resolve it, but then just moments later his wife continues the argument. After this there is a discussion with Stanford researcher, Robert Sapolsky, about the gender (although it’s more appropriate to say ‘sex’ because ‘gender’ is a social construct and does not depend on your sex hormones) differences in recover from stress (or, really, the autonomic nervous system – ANS). His research has shown that for both men and women, the ANS is activated at similar speeds or kinetics. However, the deactivation or resolution of the ANS is much slower in women than in men, which comes across as men “letting go” more quickly and women seeming to hold on to the same emotions for longer.

The autonomic nervous system, or ANS, is called such because we have no voluntary control over it, or so they say. The truth is that we can learn a certain amount of control over it, just like how we learn to hold our bladders until we can get to a toilet to relieve ourselves. For simplicity’s sake, however, we say that we have no voluntary control over it because, to a large extent, we do not. As you may recall, there are two branches of the ANS: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response to threats, while the PNS is responsible for the recovery and relaxation, energy reserving phase after the “fight-or-flight” phase. In general, we aim to spend most of our time in between these two states of being, erring on the side of the more calming, PNS state. Most, if not all, therapies for anything having to do with the body aim to help the subject get into and stay in the PNS state, including neurofeedback, but also acupuncture, massage, psychotherapy, hypnosis (an even deeper state), etc. When you’re in the SNS, you’re unable to do anything but survive. The primary issue is when you get stuck in a SNS-dominant state and cannot move out of it into a more PNS-dominant state. What Dr. Sapolsky’s research indicates is that women’s bodies take longer to exit the SNS-dominant state due to differences in the breakdown of the factors (hormones, etc.) involved in the activated state, so they feel like they’re still upset even after the appearance of resolution. This is why men and women tend to have different timelines in their arguments, while men “get over it” more quickly than women.

There are more implications of this research than just differences in the way men and women resolve their arguments. Many of the implications are physical (such as heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism) – stress is more physically damaging to women than to men, and these differences vary within the women’s menstrual cycle and depend on the level of circulating estrogen (which causes this increased reactivity along the hypothalamus-pituitary axis [HPA]). Of course, this suggests that women lose out when compared to men in response to stress; however, there is another aspect to the sex differences in stress responses that demonstrates why women do not exit the stress response as quickly as men: it’s because women tend to respond to stress in a nurturing, relationship-building manner – what is called tend-and-befriend” (as opposed to “fight-or-flight”). The fight-or-flight response in men makes sense as a very high adrenaline response, which would deplete the man’s energetic resources fairly quickly, thus necessitating a quick resolution of the response. However, the tend-and-befriend response is less energetically taxing to the woman’s body and may even require a longer period to execute properly (it takes longer to build relationships than to destroy them), thus extending the response time until its resolution.

Whenever one talks about sex differences where the words “gender” and “sex” are intermixed (due to a fundamental misunderstanding of their different meanings) there is a lot of miscommunication that can occur. Again, to clarify, we’re talking about sex hormones driving the difference in the time it takes to break-down or metabolize the endocrine factors (neurotransmitters, hormones, etc.) that are involved in the sympathetic nervous system.

Finally, it occurred to me recently after another failed attempt at dating that the initial feelings of romantic or sexual attraction feels a lot like the fight-or-flight response (including the “freeze” variation), which suggests that it is driven by the sympathetic nervous system. It’s definitely automatic, since it’s not voluntary! Then I looked up on Pubmed (database of primary bio-medical publications) and found that, indeed, the sympathetic nervous system is activated during romantic and sexual attraction – in women! Apparently, erections in men are driven by the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), while the orgasm is driven by the SNS. In any case, following the logic of this blog, we finally have a physiological explanation for why women tend to have a harder time getting over break-ups than men do! (And I have an especially hard time, but that’s another story altogether!)

So hetero women out there: it’s perfectly natural that you are holding on to the relationship for longer than he is – it’s your biology. However, don’t expect him to understand, that’s his biology. Womp womp. It probably also explains why lesbians tend to stay friends with their exes (of course, this is mostly not the case for me, but I do see it a lot with my friends).

Lastly, neurofeedback does help reduce the half-life of the ANS for those of us who feel like we have extra-long half-lives. I have personally witnessed this in myself after doing many sessions of neurofeedback; I can “let go” much more easily than I ever had been able to in the past. No combination of medications or talk therapy has ever gotten me even close to feeling more able to “let go”, but I did learn a lot of better coping techniques so I wouldn’t behave regrettably when it took me longer to “let go”. Now I don’t even need to use those coping techniques nearly as much since I don’t even feel it as badly – I feel like I can naturally move on sooner, and that honestly feels like a miracle! Come in and find your own miracle if you’ve experienced similar difficulties!

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.

Where Consciousness Resides in the Brain

I have been interested in the nature of consciousness and how and where it resides in the brain for a long time. I’m interested from the neurobiological standpoint as well as the spiritual, metaphysical, or epiphenomenal standpoint(s). There must be a mechanism for how the information of consciousness can be transmitted in the body – or stored – and for how it controls the body, which is biological.

Although we still have a lot to understand about the nature of consciousness or how it is embedded or interacts with the brain, we do have a pretty good idea about where it resides in the brain. About a year ago, this article was published about a study locating what could be described as one definition of consciousness, two characteristics of which are arousal and awareness, in the rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum, which is a small nucleus of neurons in the brainstem, and it connects to the left ventral, anterior insula (AI) and the pregenual anterior cingular cortex (pACC), which are associated with arousal and awareness. The finding is supported by the fact that all of the fMRI scans of patients in a coma and vegetative state had disruptions in the network between these regions.

Location is a major finding in neurobiology, but it is still pretty rudimentary if you really want to understand the phenomenon of consciousness. Another idea is how consciousness is either created by this region or somehow is stored in it temporarily. Even so, we want to also know how it interacts with the biology of the brain to control it through free will, whatever the nature of that is, too. [I believe we have free will, but not all scientists (including neuroscientists) agree that we do. I also believe that free will is one of the few inherent properties of consciousness, in addition to awareness, arousal, and love.]

In any case, it is pretty cool to have a place to look at for the residence of consciousness (well, specifically the aspects responsible for arousal, awareness, and free will, at least) in the brain. An interesting note is that the  is a region of the brain that processes sensory information from our viscera and is involved in the autonomic nervous system, such as the sympathetic (responsible for fight-or-flight mode) or the parasympathetic (responsible for the calm and resting to recover the body after a fight or flight) nervous systems. The pACC is associated with conscious awareness and free will, since disrupting its connection with the premotor and motor cortices (which often happens in split-brain surgery) results in not being able to consciously control the hand – this is called “alien hand syndrome” – a condition when the hand seems to have a mind – and personality – of it’s own.

I could go on and on and on about my thoughts on the nature of consciousness, but I think I will just stop here with the peak into where it is likely anchored in the brain.

Neuromarkers for Mental Health!

The idea of neuromarkers of psychiatric disorders has arrived with the first FDA-approved neuromarker for ADHD, which is a ratio of the relative power between two different brainwaves, theta and beta, in the cerebral cortex as measured by electroencephalography (EEG). It is called the theta-beta ratio [TBR], and it is a useful tool in supplementing the diagnosis of ADHD in about 25-40% of ADHD patients. Although the TBR is the first to be approved by the FDA, there are many other potential neuromarkers like it that we can measure using quantitative EEG, which may be able to help clinicians and patients to better understand their psychiatric symptoms, and even may help determine the best treatment.

Controversy over the meaning and use of neuromarkers remains. These measures should change with treatment only if they are causative for the condition or symptom(s); if they are not causative but are correlative, they may or may not change with changes in symptoms. Another possibility is that they may represent an underlying risk for the condition or symptom, but may not be sufficient to cause the condition or symptom, which, again, would not necessarily result in changes to the measure when symptoms change. This is similar to the mechanism of genetics and how individual genetic variations may correlate with diseases or indicate increased risk of disease, but the genetic variation in and of itself is insufficient to cause the disease. The current data suggests that a similar mechanism is likely for at least some of these neuromarkers, which makes sense for the complex nature of mental health.

Despite the caveats, the emerging field of neuromarkers for mental health disorders is very exciting! For the first time, we may have objective measures for mental health that can support psychological diagnoses, prognoses, as well as the possibility for monitoring treatment efficacy. We will soon have the capability to measure and explore these potential neuromarkers at Rose City Therapeutics since we now have been trained and have purchased the equipment – it is on its way!

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