Category: Neuroscience

Dads, Dopamine, & Derek Cianfrance

That last research article I posted has me wondering about goal-setting.

In our weird wiry brains there are chunks of flesh that are more-or-less devoted to goal-setting, reward-seeking, and the like. This is personally fascinating to me because pretty much never in the process of goal-setting or goal-seeking do I think much about my own biology. 

More so, reward itself feels pretty urgent:

  • once I get to my apartment after this workout I’ll be able to pull that cold water bottle out of the fridge and drink it. Fuck, I need to get to my apartment
  • This blog post isn’t going to get nearly enough likes. How can I get more likes? Maybe I’ll insert a cool picture. Ah, just imagine how many people will like this blog post! That’s gonna feel so good. I’m the man. Can’t wait for those likes
  • Damn, I’m still thinking about the water
  • 6.82$ is more than enough to get a delicious Snickers bar and so oh, hell yes, it’s time to walk to the gas station
  • only 4.5 days until payday
  • I got a free milkshake at that diner, so I definitely am going back to that diner
  • All of these likes that I’m racking up on my blog post feel so good but they aren’t enough and I want more
  • Need to drink that cold water that’s inside my fridge

We are tremendously lucky to live during a time where we can think broadly and deeply about what is happening in our bodies and our brains during these types of desires and impulses. Let’s take a case of reward that many of us have witnessed in one way or another: An alcoholic’s neurotransmitters surely float like butterflies and sting like bees, causing all sorts of dysfunction. The irony of alcohol is that even though it’s reinforcing, and even though it leads to all sorts of complicated goal-setting, alcohol in the long term can be very destructive. What earlier was a disordered exercise in scholarly skepticism is now a seriously important question: Why do humans set the goals that they do, and how do they achieve them? What underlying body systems are involved when goal-setting is going right or going wrong, and how can we influence those body systems? What aspects of our brain give rise to the tendency to misalign short term and long term goals?

These questions are serious but they’re honestly pretty dry. With a yawn, let’s be reminded of the basic science vocab that we’ll toss around in the conversation about goal-setting. In our everyday lexicon dopamine is appropriately associated with reward and reinforcement of behavior. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter – What sets us aside from other mammals is our tendency to fetter and filter our desires through immensely complicated frontal lobes, enabling long-term planning and modeling of potential scenarios. Which scenarios (and behaviors) end up being reinforced is a matter of complex neural wiring, and the neuroscientist is one who wonders what biological systems are dancing about as mental models are constructed to achieve goals. Parenting is no doubt a marathon of mental models: There’s a lot that can happen when you’re toting a vulnerable child and a lot that you’ll need to be prepared for long ahead of time.

How frontal lobes, mammalian reward systems relate to cinema is largely a matter of interpretation. I’m actually getting tired but will make sure to come back to this post. Leaving it public so that I don’t just leave it rotting in the drafts folder

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Instantiation of incentive value and movement invigoration by distinct midbrain dopamine circuits (Saunders et. al)

Cool paper:

Instantiation of incentive value and movement invigoration by distinct midbrain dopamine circuits

Never stop reading! This paper is pretty representative of the research I’d like to be doing within the next several years. Haven’t finished reading it but am enjoying it & wanted to post here. I’m noticing that when research articles or readings are really tremendously exciting I come to ramble about them before actually finishing them.

The lead researcher on this study is a dude by the name of Benjamin T. Saunders. He got an undergrad degree from West Virginia University, a PhD at the University of Michigan, and then did some postdoc research at UCSF and then Johns Hopkins. He’s now opened a lab at the University of Minnesota that came to my attention via a random listserve email from the U of M. They’re doing cool stuff related to dopamine, reward, etc. & I want to keep track of it. The techniques they’ll be using in the lab (EG optogenetic signalling) are things I’ve read about in class but never really read about in real life. And if they’re doing it over at the U that makes me curious about going to take a look at their lab.

So what’s with distinct midbrain dopamine circuits? Why should we care?

 

Tripping in context

Let’s say you’re sitting at a bar. You’re 1.5 drinks in: confidence blows in the sail of your diaphragm, smiles are beginning to seep from your cheeks, and the voice in your head informs your sad, previously sober-self: What the hell – I really can achieve my goals, and I really do take myself too seriously, and thank the lord for alcohol! We have to do this more often, you mopey fuck!” As GABA floats across the lanes of your head-highways your brain – rather, you – find yourself settling into a disorganized and disinhibited state of bliss. Euphoria is too complicated a word for a feeling this normal. You’re calm once more.

You’re alone in that sense. Somehow your eyes receive some brainspace from your nose, which has utterly hijacked your experience with an awful perfume smell. An older woman 2 seats over is the hare to your tortoise and the current colonizer of your nostrils. You see that she is already a walking (sitting) vessel for a bottle of wine. She orders another. Some song that your dad really likes plays on the bar speakers as you peek down at her right ankle. No mistaking the Louis Vuitton purse at her side, nor the 3 prescription bottles inside of it. Your background in medicine, druggery, and institutionalization have taught you about privacy, but being medication savvy, 3/4 of a second is all you need: notice that the pill bottles all look fresh but bear different logos: St. Paul Corner Drug, CVS, Walgreens Pharmacy. Citizen-healthy-voter you shouldn’t peek, shouldn’t judge, so you look away and try to mind your drink. Hospital-you sees the after-image of the bottles in your mind’s eye. Amphetamine, Xanax, Prozac. Yet another rich lady with a gaggle of doctors. A gaggle of neuroses, sure, and based on her medication choices she’s well aware of her own difficulties. The problem is, these medications shouldn’t be prescribed together. Any legitimate care provider would know not to prescribe an antidepressant with a benzo with a stimulant anywhere other than a college basement. The bartender asks if you want another – in the 1/2 second before answering you have a moment of sadness for all the doctors who are persecuted for prescribing. Yeah, America, blame the doctors for your kids taking adderall. Keep blaming the doctors for Prozac being ineffective. Keep blaming a bunch of debt-laden medical students for doing their best to please you. And then jump onto the next miracle cure, why don’t ya, until the next miracle cure fucks you up. And fuck wine, you think to yourself loudly. You try to remember that there’s no need to be judgmental. Even though you won’t ever relate to this lady she’s ruined your state of mind, which honestly isn’t her fault. So much for the calm.

Then, Grandma-Glamorous yells something that actually resonates: GOSH, I MEAN FOR A MAJORITY OF PEOPLE WITHOUT MAJOR DEPRESSIVE DISORDER, NONE OF THESE ANTIDEPRESSANTS WORK ANY BETTER THAN LIFESTYLE CHANGES ! THEY SAID ON THE NEWS THAT THEY’RE USING THOSE MAGIC MUSHROOMS TO MAKE THE BLUES GO AWAY, HAVEN’T YOU HEARD? DOESN’T A LITTLE WOODSTOCK SOUND MORE FUN THAN WHINING? Fearfully, you almost glance down at her purse again to see if she’s carrying any tabs. She isn’t. What is this lady onto, anyways? She’s not like you: She’s never hallucinated (recreationally or clinically), she prefers medication over lifestyle changes, she drinks like a fish, and – despite her ability to rattle off study findings – appears completely medically irreverent. She’s also upper class and has uttered words supportive of the Trump administration. You wonder if she has a therapist and realize that it doesn’t really matter. She is a consumer and she wants what she wants what she wants. So how do these folks, abusive yet wary of all things prescription, come to love magic mushrooms?

What about the clinicians who are eager to publish? Their credibility requires that they not abuse medication, and that they be less wary of prescriptions. In fact, they must plunge headfirst into pharmacological interventions despite any wariness they experience. Their patients rely on it.

What about you? The nerdy, liberal-leaning undergrad? You have seen in your own body the disastrous effects of various prescription drugs. You’ve also seen in your own body the disastrous effects of various psychedelic drugs. You’ve also seen the benefits of both of these classes of drugs. So, let’s get serious.

What do psychedelics have to offer to the everyman? To the world of clinical psychiatry? Are psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD, or MDMA beneficial for mental health? Are they harmful for mental health? How do their effects differ between younger and older people? Between men and women? Are these drugs more effective for people with diagnosed illnesses? Less effective? Dangerous? If I have major depressive disorder, and medications aren’t working for me, should I ask the young fella at the bar if he knows where to buy some shrooms?

 

 

Do you cry after caffeine intake?

I do. It’s weird

Coffee is a devilish drug with a tendency to cultivate dependence and craft caffeinated chains between itself and the user. As I type this I’m maybe a few ounces (probably 30-50mg of caffeine) into a cup of coffee &, as often happens, I started crying in what totaled to a brief 10-second spurt. Playing on my mental radio was a sudden dialogue with a formless stranger about how beautiful my cats are, how grateful for them, etc. An image of myself much older came to mind; I was seeing an old picture of the cats and hadn’t seen that old picture in some time and I was crying tears of gratitude.

This mental trip took place in less than 4-5 seconds, was profound, colorful, and detailed, and took me straight out of the room I was sitting in. There was a glowy feeling of being decades older and shown these gorgeous pictures of these gorgeous cats. It was less a thought process and more of a vision or fleeting headline on the newsreel of my frontal lobes.

It immediately passed and I felt funny for having had the experience yet again. Self aware, un-emotional, and nonreactive to what had just occurred. This type of thing occurs very often after coffee but it was quite some time before I realized that. I thought I was the type of person who had an early morning cry session, or a few chaotic ones (always of about 10-20 seconds maximum) but the link with caffeine became clear after a long period of daily journaling. Will post an excerpt soon but just wanted to leave this note here for myself later. With that said, I’m off to finish this coffee