Archive for the ‘ Science Info ’ Category

Neuroscience Friends!

I’ve just returned from a thrilling weekend at the BIL Conference in Long Beach, California (yes, the pun on “TED” is very intentional) where I met all kinds of smart, fun people – including lots of folks who share my love for braaaiiins!

The conference was held in... The Future!

So I thought I’d introduce you guys to some of the friends I made. I think you’ll be as surprised – and as excited – as I am.

Backyard Brains
Their motto is “neuroscience for everyone” – how cool is that? They sell affordable kits that let you experiment at home with the nervous systems of insects and other creatures. They gave a super-fun presentation where I got to help dissect a cockroach and send electrical signals through its nerves.

Interaxon
They build all kinds of cutting-edge tools that let home users study their brain activity, and even control machines and art projects with it. Their founder, Ariel Garten, has a great TED talk here – I’ve rarely met anyone else who was so excited to have weird new neuroscience adventures.

Deltaself and Dangerously Hardcore
Two blogs by the very smart Naomi Most – the first is about how scientific data is changing the way we all understand our minds and bodies; the second is about hacking your own behavior to stay healthier and live better.

Halcyon Molecular
Their aim is to put the power to sequence and modify genomes in everyone’s hands within the next few decades. They’re getting some huge funding lately, and lots of attention in major science journals.

Bonus – XCOR Aerospace
They’re building a privately-funded suborbital spacecraft for independent science missions. If there’s anybody who can help us all join the search for alien life in the near future, I bet it’s these guys.

So check those links out and let me know what you think. I’d love to get these folks involved in future videos, especially if you’re interested in any of them.

Consider This an Invitation

This photo got me thinking. Only 24 percent? Really?

We’re finding weird new exoplanets every day – hell, NASA hasn’t even ruled out the possibility that there could be life on Europa and Titan, two moons in our own solar system – yet so many people have lost faith in space’s limitless potential to surprise us.

But we’re entering an age when that potential is no longer the exclusive domain of first-world governments and media conglomerates. The fact that we even have a contest like Google’s X Prize proves that independent space exploration is becoming a very real possibility for each one of us.

The question isn’t whether a private company is going to mount an alien-hunting expedition – it’s who’s gonna be the first to try?

Crazy? Of course it’s crazy! Every awesome expedition is!

So what do you guys say? I say it’s possible if we put our resources and our heads together. Even if we don’t find E.T., we’ll have one hell of a story to tell our grandkids.

5 Ways to Fight the Blues…with Science!

So you’re stuck in that mid-week slump…the weekend lies on the other side of a scorching desert of work, and you have no canteen because you gave up water for Lent (in this metaphor, “water” refers to alcohol…just to be clear).

YAY SCIENCE!

But fear not! Neuroscience knows how to cheer you up! Nope, this isn’t another post about sex or drugs…though those are coming soon. This one’s about five things science says you can do right now – with your mind – to chase your cranky mood away.

1.Take a look around
Research shows that people who focus on the world around them, instead of on their own thoughts, are much more likely to resist a relapse into depression. This is easy to do – just find something interesting (or beautiful) to look at, and think about that for a few seconds…you’ll be surprised how quickly your worries fade.

2. Do some mental math
Scientists say doing a little simple arithmetic – adding up the digits of your phone number, for example – reroutes mental resources from worry to logic. Don’t worry; your emotions will still be there when you’re done…but they’re less likely to hog the spotlight if you don’t give them center stage.

3. Get out and about
Lots of studies show that physical activity raises levels of endorphins – the body’s own “feel-good” chemicals – and helps improve your mood throughout the day. You don’t have to run a marathon; even a quick walk around the block will get your blood pumping and help clear your mind.

4. Find some excitement
Some very interesting studies have found that courage – a willingness to face some of your fears – feeds on itself; in other words, the more adventurous your behavior is, the fewer things your brain considers threatening. In a way, it’s a “fake it ’til ya make it” situation…but instead of trying to be someone you’re not, you’re becoming more comfortable with the person you are.

5. Remember, it’s not always a bad thing
It sometimes helps to remember that stress is a natural phenomenon…as natural as digestion or sleep. Though stress (or sadness, or worry) can sometimes get out of hand, our bodies have evolved these responses to help us, and there’s nothing “wrong” with you just because you’re feeling annoyed or down in the dumps today. Instead of trying to make the feeling go away, sometimes the best thing to do is acknowledge it, and think about what’s triggering it. You might surprise yourself with an insight.

So, those tips are pretty simple, right? Try some of ‘em out, and let me know which ones worked best for you. After all, that’s why scientists study this stuff – to help us all understand more about what our minds are up to.

Why I Love and Hate “Game”

Yes, it’s that special time of year again – time for flamboyant bouquets and chalky candy to appear at office desks – time for Facebook pages to drown in cloying iconography – time for self-labeled “forever aloners” to dredge the back alleys of OKCupid in last-ditch desperation – and time for me to load up my trusty gatling crossbow with oxytocin-tipped darts and hit the streets.

Valentine's Day also means it's time to enjoy the traditional dish of Earlobe.

Oh, and it’s time for everyone to complain about how misogynistic all this “Game” stuff is.

So, while I guess I could write about, say, a new study that says cutting your romantic partner some slack can make him or her more capable of actual change, or this one that says love and chocolate are good for cardiovascular health, I think it’ll be much more interesting to talk about what’s really on most of our minds today:

What does science have to say about “getting the girl” (or guy) of your dreams? And what do actual girls (and guys) think about it?

Let’s start with some full disclosure: about this time last year, I decided to see what all the fuss was about, and I read The Game for myself – and then I read some of the other works it cites, too. And I started talking to my friends (both male and female) about what they thought of the ideas in those books – and I tested a lot of the ideas I read, the same way I’d test any hypothesis: I wrote down the predictions various authors made, and checked how well those predictions lined up with my own real-world experiences.

In short, I went Full Geek on the topic.

What I learned is that, on the spectrum of scientific rigorousness – a scale from, say, astrology (0) to molecular chemistry (10) – most of this stuff falls somewhere in the 4-to-6 range: It tends to be more evidence-based than, say, ghost-hunting; but it still falls firmly into the realm of the “softer” sciences, like psychotherapy and so on.

The reason for this is that – as many pick-up artists freely admit – their craft is at least as much an artistic pursuit as a scientific one. Much like, say, Aristotle and Hobbes and Descartes, PUAs do their best to ground their conclusions logically in real-world data that anyone is free to test and refute – but at the same time, like those great philosophers of old, PUAs tend to be more intent on constructing elaborate thought systems than on presenting their “ugly” raw data for independent labs to crunch through.

This means pick-up manuals tend to read more like philosophical treatises than scientific papers.

And I think it’s this very feature of pick-up art that explains why it’s such a polarizing topic – why many women (and plenty of men) find the very concept insulting and distasteful, while other men swear that it’s transformed them from self-loathing losers into sexually fulfilled alpha males.

See, many women will tell you in no uncertain terms that pickup “tricks” don’t work on someone as intelligent and experienced as them; and that even if such tricks did work, they don’t want to be “picked up” –  instead, they want to fall in love (or at least in lust) with a man who’s honest about his real self and his real feelings. Many men, too, would agree that crafty seduction techniques somehow cheapen the process – that it’s better to be “forever alone” than to be surrounded by adoring women who were manipulated into their romantic feelings.

Meanwhile, men who’ve had “success” (however they choose to define it) as a result of a pick-up system’s techniques will often defend that system to the death – much like how a person who’s found inner peace thanks to, say, Buddhism will often defend it passionately against anti-Buddhist viewpoints.

What I’m arguing here, though, is that none of these reactions pertain directly to the underlying process of seduction at all – rather, they’re reactions to the (often sleazy-sounding) thought-systems that various writers have constructed around their experiences with that process.

Because – let’s get right down to it – in all our interactions with other humans, we’re hoping to manipulate the outcome somehow. Double entendres, pop-cultural references, stylish clothes and makeup, kind gestures, subtle dishonesty – even honesty itself – all these are tools and techniques that we hope will garner us a certain response.

For example, if you choose to callously manipulate the people around you, you may get a lot more sex than you would otherwise – but you’ll also end up with a lot of shallow relationships, which you’ll probably come to regret eventually. If you choose to be completely honest all the time, you may repel some people – but you’ll probably also find that those who stick around end up respecting you for who you really are.

It’s Game Theory 101: Players who “win” are those who understand the rules, risks and rewards of the game – and play accordingly. All the sleazy lingo and tricks – all the elaborate systems – are just various people’s attempts to explain these dynamics as they play out in gender relations, and to sell their vision of the process to a demographic of sex-starved men, whose desires they understand quite well.

But still – the underlying process itself is no more and no less sleazy than the mind of the person using it.

In other words, when you read between the lines of these PUA systems, most of them turn out to be geared toward the same premises: That to grow as a person, you need to 1) be fully honest with yourself about what you want from the people around you, 2) acknowledge the personal changes that need to be made in order to achieve those results, and 3) steadily work to make those changes in yourself.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, it’s hard for me to see how that’s inherently more “cheap” than, say, a woman learning how to dress and speak seductively in order to get what she wants.

Yes, there are a lot of sleazy men out there who objectify women and sweet-talk them into one-night stands. There are also plenty of sweet-talking women out there who milk men for the contents of their wallets, then move on. And so we label each other “douchebags” and “bitches,” and keep engaging in the same defensive behaviors, and no one’s really happy.

And I hate that Game. I despise it.

At the same time, though, it’s clear that we humans, like many other animals, have evolved to play competitive social games – there’s no getting around that fact. But unlike many animals, we don’t have to play the game exactly as our instincts tell us to – we’re metacognitive, so we can learn to play using strategies that don’t result in zero-sum outcomes: We can develop tactics that help both sides get more of what they want. We can harness our evolutionary drives to mutually-beneficial behavior patterns.

Doesn’t that make you want to learn to play more creatively, instead of trying not to play at all?

I mean, at the end of the day, it kinda fills me with love for the Game.

What do you think?

The Brain Lab Tour

This past weekend, I got to visit one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen: the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging (LONI). So just for today, I’m gonna take a break from news reporting, and tell you a little about what goes on inside an actual cutting-edge neuroscience lab. Sound good? OK, let’s go!

I'd be okay with just bringing a tent and camping out here.

I’m not sure quite what I was expecting to see as I stepped through the lab’s electronically locked door – certainly not the roomful of clean, open-walled work areas that greeted me. I might’ve been standing in a sleek law office, or an advertising agency – except that the flatscreens adorning the walls displayed colorful 3-D brain maps and reams of dense scientific data.

Imagine being five years old, celebrating Christmas morning at Disneyland - you get the idea.

But before I could start running around making googly-eyes at everything, it was time to meet my host – the delightful Eileen Luders, who’d offered to give me a tour of the lab when I’d gushed about my enthusiasm for her work. Eileen studies neural correlates of meditative states, and she’s also interested in isolating tiny structural variations that correspond to specific kinds of intelligence. More on this awesomeness shortly.

After introductions and a bit of happy chitchat, Eileen led me to a small screening room, whose entire front wall was an enormous wraparound high-resolution video screen. From the control booth, a lab technician dimmed the lights and played us a promo video that was ten minutes of pure heaven. We flew through huge, detailed 3-D brain atlases, watching neural pathways assemble and disassemble before our eyes. We plunged into the brains of schizophrenics and drug abusers and meditators, as data from fMRI and DTI and OTI exploded into multicolored digital sculptures of these brains’ structures and functions.

When it was over (all too soon), I asked Eileen what the lab normally uses this room for. “Mostly meetings,” she said with a chuckle.

As we strolled back to her office, she explained the principle on which this lab works: all the scans are processed by one huge supercomputer array housed in a well-locked room. All a team (or scientist) needs to perform a basic scan is the lab’s permission, about $600, and the time and technical know-how to program the scan they want and parse its results into meaningful data.

Researchers do most of this coding and data analysis from the comfort of the cubicle-esque work areas that fill most of the lab – and this non-centralization frees up more time on the scanners for other researchers, which keeps the lab more affordable and efficient for everyone.

And then we got to talking about some really cool stuff.

I asked Eileen what had gotten her so interested in the neuroscience of meditative states, and she told me she’s always been fascinated by the chasm between subjective experience (i.e., learning how to meditate) and objective science (i.e., what happens in our brains when we meditate). So, she’s been working to help narrow that gap – to study the brain activity of meditators as they meditate, give them feedback about the results – and essentially do her best to act as a fairly seamless translator between mind and machine (and vice versa).

I asked her what it was like having monks visit the lab. She told me two things: “They’re incredibly sharp; incredibly present,” she said. “And they were really excited to see if the bathroom was as cool as everything else.” In short, monks frickin’ rule.

Thinking about meditation, I wondered aloud whether singing and chanting might reflect an inherently different cognitive process from speech. There’s some (very preliminary) research suggesting that certain tones and vocalizations (such as chanting “aum” or humming a major scale) may help modulate patterns of neural activity far more directly than words can. Eileen mentioned that she’s done a bit of research on yogic chanting that might point in this direction. (Too bad we can’t time-travel back to 1968 and put these guys in one of her scanners.)

Anyway, it’s easy to see why Eileen’s also interested in finding neural correlates for specific kinds of intelligence. This got us talking about one of her other pet projects: looking for neural correlates of gender differences. She pointed out that women’s brains are, on average, a little smaller than men’s – “But when you adjust a male and female brain to equal size,” she said, “the differences aren’t nearly as obvious as they might appear at first glance.”  (A few days later, she sent me a published, peer-reviewed paper she’s written on this topic; I’m looking forward to diving into it.)

By this time, it was starting to get late, so Eileen offered me a quick tour of the lab before rushing off to do more Awesome Neuroscience Stuff. We peeked through the window of the supercomputer room, where multicolored lights flickered on rows of imposing black towers. We poked our heads into the wet lab, where neuroanatomists actually freeze and dissect brains. We stopped by a few workstations where technicians were busy designing scanning programs or analyzing their output. I wish I’d been able to take photos.

And then it was time to say goodbye. As Eileen and I shook hands at the doorway, I couldn’t help feeling that I wanted to give her a hug – to hug the whole lab, and everyone in it. It just made me so happy to think that there are other people like us – people filled with a deep yearning to understand what’s going on inside our heads, and just how it works – people driven to dedicate massive amounts of time and money to finding the pieces of this crazy puzzle, and starting to fit a few of those pieces together.

But most of all, I’m so glad that those people are kind, and friendly, and every bit as geeky as I am. Neuroscience FTW!

Drugs, Neuroscience, and You

Let’s be honest here: if a person really wants to try an illegal drug, he or she is going to find a way to try it. To me, the most reasonable response to this fact seems to be to share clear, science-backed explanations of the effects and risks involved with each drug.

So today, I’m going to take a little break from my usual newsy reporting, and provide a condensed rundown on some drugs, in the style of my Memory Menagerie write-up.

First, just a couple quick notes about this summary. For one thing, it’s going to focus on drugs that are illegal in many places, for the simple reason that it’s (understandably) not easy to get clear scientific info about them. (If you’re interested in a similar write-up about psychiatric prescription drugs, though, drop me a comment and I’ll happily write one.) Anyway, my goal here is to inform and educate – not to advise or condone anything. To be annoyingly literal about this: I’m not suggesting that you take illegal drugs.

Second, I also can’t cover every drug that’s available today – spend a few minutes on Erowid.com, and you’ll see that there are dozens, if not hundreds of them. So I’m going to stick to the ones you’re most likely to hear about. And that brings up my final note: my main goal here isn’t to be exhaustive or in-depth, but to provide a quick overview of major “street drugs” on a single page, simply because one-page collections of quick scientific info on illegal substances are (oddly enough) hard to come by.

And now, without further ado…let’s talk about some drugs.

Cannabis (marijuana)1

What it is: A resin that grows on the female buds of plants in the genus Cannabis. The word “marijuana” seems to have first come into use as a slang term (of unknown origin) in Mexico in the 1800s.
What it does: Physically, ingestion of the drug causes bloodshot eyes, dry mouth, increased heart rate, and muscle relaxation. Mentally, it produces a “high” – a feeling of euphoria. Beyond this, its psychological effects vary widely from user to user. Some common effects, though, include reduction of stress-related feelings, increased appreciation of art and music, increased tendency to laugh, increased appetite, a distorted sense of time, a variety of degrees of amnesia, and a tendency toward metacognition (thinking about thinking) and introspection. Another notable aspect of the high is that certain internal thoughts – especially those linked with strong emotion – seem extraordinarily vivid. If someone with an anxiety-related disorder uses cannabis, these effects can become tinged with negativity, and paranoia may set in, sometimes leading to a panic attack. As with many drugs, the boundary between positive and negative effects is easily crossed, and constant careful monitoring of one’s set and setting is crucial. Depending on the dose, effects can last from 30 minutes to eight hours. Though this drug is not chemically addictive, a large number of users develop a psychological dependency on it.
How it does this: A variety of cannabinoids bind to a range of receptors involved in the body’s natural endocannabinoid system, which blocks communication between neurons within their own areas.  Most prominent among the cannabinoids in cannabis is Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol, often known as THC. It binds to CB1 and CB2 endocannabinoid receptors in a wide range of brain areas, including the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the nucleus accumbens. The exact relationship between the neurochemistry of the “high” and many of the side effects above remains poorly understood.

Cocaine (coke)

What it is: A crystalline alkaloid, a chemical compound found in the leaves of the Coca plant. It was first isolated by the chemist Friedrich Gaedcke in 1855.
What it does: Physically, cocaine acts as a stimulant, raising heart rate, increasing feelings of energy, raising confidence and enthusiasm, and providing an otherwise euphoric and alert “high.” Cocaine also acts as a mild to moderate local anesthetic. In many users, the drug also greatly reduces patience and attention span, and contributes to feelings of anxiety or paranoia, especially after repeated use. Effects usually last from 15 minutes to an hour. This drug is highly addictive – withdrawal symptoms can include irritability, anxiety, fatigue, anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) and insomnia.
How it does this: Cocaine molecules bind to sites on neurons called dopamine transporters, which normally help reabsorb dopamine – a neurotransmitter involved in feelings of reward – for future use. When the cocaine molecules bind to the dopamine transporters, they block these transporters’ function, keeping dopamine in the synaptic clefts much longer than usual. The result is that many brain pathways – in regions like the nucelus accumbens, the ventral tegmental area, and the prefrontal cortex – are bathed in dopamine, raising reward feelings far above the norm.

Psilocybin (mushrooms)

What it is: A chemical produced by more than 200 species of mushrooms – but mainly associated with the mushroom Psilocybe mexicana.
What it does: Physically, the drug tends to cause lethargy and drowsiness, disorientation, intensified reflexes, pupil dilation, and increased heart rate. As with most psychedelics, psychological effects vary widely from person to person, and depend heavily on set and setting. Feelings of euphoria or depression are common, as are enhanced appreciation of colors or shapes, and a distorted sense of time. Closed- and open-eye hallucinations vary from mild to intense depending on the dose, and can range from simple moving colors, shapes and patterns all the way to entheogenic experiences and dialogues with hallucinated beings. Effects can last from six to twelve hours, or possibly longer.
How it does this: The human body rapidly converts psilocybin to psilocin, a chemical that acts as a partial agonist to several types of serotonin receptors, especially the 5-HT2A receptor (serotonin is also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine, or 5-HT). Serotonin’s exact role in psychedelic effects remains poorly understood, but it’s known that this neurotransmitter is involved in regulating moods, and increasing feelings of well-being.

LSD (acid)

What it is: A semi-synthetic chemical originally derived from ergotamine, a substance found in ergot, a fungus that often grows on rye grain. It was first synthesized by the chemist Albert Hofmann in 1938, but he didn’t make his first (self-administered) test of LSD until 1943.
What it does:
Physically, the drug raises alertness, causes pupil dilation, raises or lowers body temperature, and increases or decreases appetite. As with most psychedelics, LSD’s psychological effects vary widely from person to person, and depend heavily on set and setting. Many users perceive movement of static surfaces like walls, as well as intensified perception of colors, brightness, iridescence, and shininess. Higher doses can trigger closed- or open-eye hallucinations of geometric patterns, echo-like distortion of sounds, and synaesthesia. Because the drug often intensifies emotions, some users can descend into “bad trips” involving panic attacks or even fragmentation of identity. However, the overall euphoric “high” sustained by LSD means a calming friend can sometimes help turn a bad trip back into a positive one. Effects usually last from four to twelve hours.
How it does this: LSD binds to many types of serotonin receptors, including 5-HT1A, 5-HT2A, 5-HT2C, 5-HT5A, and 5-HT6. At 5-HT2A, in particular, it acts as a strong partial agonist, helping trigger the release of glutamate throughout the cerebral cortex. Some research suggests that LSD may preferentially bind to less-used 5-HT receptors, triggering synaptic activity along little-used pathways. Exactly how all this contributes to the drug’s psychedelic effects remains poorly understood, but it’s likely to be linked with serotonin’s excitatory effects in the prefrontal cortex.

Salvinorin A (salvia)

What it is: A chemical found in the plant Salvia divinorum, a member of the sage family.
What it does: As with most psychedelics, salvinorin’s psychological effects vary widely from person to person, and depend heavily on set and setting. Some common effects include uncontrollable laughter, sensations of movement, distortions of time, distortions of body boundaries and perceived location, closed- or open-eye hallucinations of membranes or geometric patterns, vivid reliving of memories, synaesthesia, and glossolalia. Some users report feelings of euphoria, while others descend into fits of rage or panic attacks. Length of effects varies widely depending on the dose and method of ingestion – the experience can last from one minute to several hours.
How it does this: Salvinorin is a strong agonist for the κ-opioid receptor, and an even stronger partial agonist for the D2 dopamine receptor – thus, it increases availability of opioids and dopamine. Research on where this activity is mainly targeted, and what its relationship is to salvinorin’s psychedelic effects, remains in very early stages. Interestingly, though, salvinorin has no affinity for the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor, which is heavily affected by drugs like psilocybin, LSD, and mescaline – so salvinorin’s effects may be produced via entirely different neurochemical pathways.

MDMA (ecstasy)

What it is: A chemical first synthesized in 1912 by Merck chemist Anton Köllisch; its original intended use was to stop abnormal bleeding. It was derived from safrole, an oil extracted from the sassafras plant.
Important note: The term “MDMA” refers to the pure chemical; many tablets described as “ecstasy” also contain other substances, such as dextromethorphan or amphetamine.
What it does: Both physically and psychologically, the effects of the drug are more similar from user to user than those of many psychedelic drugs. Physically, it causes loss of appetite and exerts tension on muscles, which often results in behaviors like mild twitching or jaw-grinding. Psychologically, its most notable effect is that it raises alertness and produces a euphoric mental state, characterized by high energy, strong feelings of empathy and intimacy, heightened self-confidence, and sexual arousal. Effects last from 1.5 to 3 hours. The “comedown,” (i.e., aftereffects) of ecstasy can include dysphoria (feelings of unpleasantness), anxiety, and – in some cases – even prolonged depression.
Why it does this: MDMA triggers neurons to release serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. By blocking the actions of the vesticular monoamine transporter protein, which normally would help reabsorb norepinephrine, MDMA prolongs and heightens the availability of this neurotransmitter. It also acts as a weak agonist at 5-HT1 and 5-HT2 serotonin receptors, which increases the concentration and availability of serotonin – LSD acts as a partial agonist at some of these same receptors. Some scientists have suggested that MDMA also increases availability of oxytocin, the hormone present in high concentrations in a mother’s body during childbirth.

Nitrous oxide (balloons)

What it is: A chemical compound composed of sets of two nitrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom, usually in gas form.
What it does: At low doses, nitrous oxide has an anti-anxiety effect. It also produces dizziness, euphoria, and a feeling of being intensely in tune with somatosensory sensations. Effects often last only a few minutes, though they can be prolonged by repeated doses over a given time period.
How it does this: Nitrous oxide activates dopaminergic neurons in the ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens – areas known to be involved in addiction and reward. It also moderately blocks NMDA glutamate receptors, which play crucial roles in memory and learning, as well as β2-subunit-containing nicotinic acetylcholine (ACh) channels,which respond to nicotine-like chemicals. Meanwhile, it weakly inhibits AMPA and kainate glutamate receptors, GABAC receptors, and 5-HT3 serotonin receptors, while potentiating GABAA and glycine receptors – all of which modify synaptic likelihood and range in a wide variety of ways.

GHB (G)

What it is: An acid that naturally occurs in small amounts in the central nervous systems of most animals. Synthesis of the chemical was first reported in 1874 by chemist Alexander Zaytsev.
What it does: Though it’s sometimes described as “liquid ecstasy” (i.e., MDMA), GHB can produce a much broader range  of effects than MDMA does, depending on the dosage. At low to moderate doses, its effects are indeed very similar to MDMA: it acts as a stimulant and produces euphoria, decreased anxiety, and increased sociability – often with a more serene emotional tenor than the typical MDMA experience. At higher doses, though, it can act as a dissociative or a sedative, and has even been reported to trigger “blackout” fugue states in some users. Depending on the dose, effects may last from 1 to 5 hours.
How it does this: GHB is an agonist at the excitatory GHB receptor, and it’s a weak agonist at the GABAB receptor, which is inhibitory. GHB induces the accumulation of either a derivative of tryptophan or tryptophan itself in the extracellular space, possibly by increasing tryptophan transport across the blood-brain barrier. Activation of the GHB receptor in some brain areas seems to contribute to the release of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. Interestingly, low concentrations stimulate dopamine release via the GHB receptor, while higher concentrations inhibit dopamine release via GABA(B) receptors.

2C-B (nexus)

What it is: A chemical first synthesized as an anesthetic by chemist Alexander Shulgin in 1974.
What it does: At low doses, many users experience aphrodisiac effects, increased energy, and euphoria. Moderate to high doses can result in jittery feelings, a tendency toward “giggliness,” increased attention to one’s body and thought processes, and difficulty holding one’s concentration on a task (executive attention). Higher doses can produce unique visual and auditory hallucinations – objects can take on “runny” shapes or “watercolor-like” colors. At high doses, these may become full-blown hallucinations; i.e., independent of the user’s actual visuals. Depending on the dose, these effects can last from 1 to 5 hours – but the drug is known to leave residual effects with some users (i.e., the effects of the drug may still be experienced for several hours after the user’s body has metabolized the entire dose); this seems to be more common with higher doses. The “comedown” period has been associated with irritability, headaches, etc., but not all users report these symptoms.
Why it does this: Unlike most hallucinogens, 2C-B has been shown to be a low efficacy serotonin 5-HT2A receptor partial agonist or even full antagonist. This means its effects are produced by other neurochemical pathways than the serotonin pathway used by drugs like LSD and mescaline. Though it’s known that 2C-B contributes to the formation of several chemicals in the liver, their role in its effects is still poorly understood.

Ketamine (special K)

What it is: A chemical first synthesized as an anesthetic by pharmaceutical company Parke-Davis in 1962.
What it does: The drug produces a feeling of “dissociative anesthesia” – a sense of depersonalization or detachment from one’s body. As with other dissociatives, this state is often accompanied by a feeling of euphoria – the tendency of users in dissociative states to report decreased fear responses may also contribute to this feeling. At higher doses, ketamine can result in hallucinations (typically simple closed- or open-eye visuals), and sometimes in the strong dissociation commonly known as a “K-hole,” which is thought to mimic the psychological effects of schizophrenia. Effects often last 60 minutes or shorter.
How it does this: Ketamine acts as an NMDA receptor antagonist. At high, fully anesthetic level doses, ketamine has also been found to bind to type 2 opioid μ receptors, both of which contribute (along with its general tendency to block sodium channels) to its anaesthetic and analgesic effects. It acts as a dopamine reuptake inhibitor, increasing the availability of that neurotransmitter. Effects seem to be primarily focused in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.

PCP (angel dust)

What it is: A chemical first synthesized as a surgical anesthetic in 1926.
What it does: Physically, low doses produce numbness, loss of balance, and slurred speech, while higher doses have analgesic and even anesthetic effects. Psychologically, users report euphoria, increased self-confidence, feelings of invulnerability, changes in body image, and loss of ego boundaries. Higher doses have been reported to lead to paranoia, hallucinations, depersonalization, and suicidal impulses. Depending on the dose, effects may last from 1 to 6 hours.
How it does this: PCP’s primary action is as an antagonist at on glutamate receptors, such as the NMDA receptor – this inhibits the release of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, which is likely a cause of effects like loss of ego boundaries and depersonalization. PCP also inhibits nicotinic acetylcholine receptors – and, like ketamine, it acts as a partial agonist at D2 dopamine receptor sites, contributing to feelings of reward and euphoria.

Mescaline (peyote)

What it is: An alkaloid that occurs naturally in several types of cactus, most notably the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii).
Important note: the terms “mescaline” and “peyote” aren’t strictly synonymous; the peyote cactus contains a large spectrum of psychoactive  phenethylamine alkaloids, of which the principal one is mescaline.
What it does: The visual distortions produced by mescaline are somewhat different from those of LSD – rather than perceptions of non-existent objects or persons, they tend to enhance subjective perceptions and modify them in ways that many users find difficult to describe in words. Color and shape are greatly enhanced, and users report experiencing an overwhelming sense of the unique “is-ness” of individual objects. As with LSD, synesthesia is also common. Effects typically last for 12-18 hours.
How it does this: Neurochemically, mescaline acts similarly to other psychedelic drugs like LSD and DMT – it binds to and activates the serotonin 5-HT2A receptor with a high affinity as a partial agonist. How this leads to psychedelic effects is still poorly understood, but it likely involves excitation of neurons in the prefrontal cortex. Mescaline also activates the 5-HT2C serotonin receptor. In addition to serotonin receptor activity, the drug also stimulates dopamine receptors.

5-MeO-DMT (DMT)

What it is: A chemical compound that naturally occurs in small quantities in the central nervous systems of many animals, and is often made from the bark resin of Virola trees. It was first synthesized in 1936 by chemist Richard Manske.
Important note: Although 5-Me-O DMT is often referred to as “DMT,” the two terms are actually not synonymous: 5-Me-O DMT is a close relative  of the chemical DMT, but it’s approximately 4 times as potent. Still, the pharmacology and range of potential effects for both chemicals are highly similar.
What it does: At low doses, DMT and its relatives produce somewhat similar effects to those of psychedelics like LSD and 2C-B – increased appreciation for light, color, and sound, and enhanced brightness and “watercolor-like” colors. At higher doses, the drug can produce powerful entheogenic experiences including intense visuals, euphoria and hallucinations. Effects often last only 5 to 10 minutes, but users have reported that a full-blown “trip” can be shocking in its alienness and intensity.
How it does this: Like other hallucinogens such as LSD and mescaline, a large part of DMT’s psychedelic effects are linked to the drug’s activation of the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor – though, as with these other drugs, the exact linkage between 5-HT receptors and psychedelic effects is poorly understood. Psilocin, an active chemical in many psychedelic mushrooms, is structurally similar to DMT.

Ayahuasca

What it is: A chemical stew of various psychoactive substances prepared from the South American Banisteriopsis caapi jungle vine. Its usage in certain tribal rituals dates back hundreds – if not thousands – of years.
What it does: Ayahuasca is essentially a preparation specially crafted to allow DMT to be deliverable to the brain when taken orally – so most of its effects are highly similar to those listed in the “5-MeO-DMT” entry above. The chemicals harmine and harmaline – other ingredients in the brew – can cause severe nausea and vomiting, which some users say enhances the intensity of the psychedelic experience.
How it does this: Ordinarily, the chemical MAO-A prevents DMT from crossing the blood-brain barrier – but the chemicals harmine and harmaline are selective and reversible inhibitors of MAO-A, while tetrahydroharmine is a weak serotonin uptake inhibitor. This inhibition of MAO-A allows DMT to diffuse unmetabolized past the membranes in the stomach and small intestine and eventually get through the blood-brain barrier (which, by itself, requires no MAO-A inhibition) to activate receptor sites in the brain.

Methamphetamine (meth)

What it is: A chemical first synthesized from the herb ephedrine by chemist Nagai Nagayoshi in 1893. Fun fact: in World War II, the Japanese military stockpiled vast amounts of this drug, and handed it out to soldiers before battles.
What it does: Physically, the drug often increases heart rate, raises body temperature, and causes tremors or twitching. Psychologically, it creates euphoria and aids concentration – especially on menial and repetitive tasks – increases libido, and raises self-confidence and feelings of power. Higher and/or repeated doses can lead to dermatillomania (compulsive skin picking), hallucinations, paranoia, and sometimes even psychosis. Depending on the dose, effects can last from 3 to 12 hours. This drug is highly addictive, and many former users experience anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure).
How it does this: Methamphetamine causes the norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin (5HT) transporters to reverse their direction of flow, leading to a release of these neurotransmitters into the synaptic cleft. The drug also indirectly prevents the reuptake of these neurotransmitters, causing them to remain available for a prolonged period. This leads to feelings of euphoria and reward – and, over time, also contributes to paranoia and addiction.

Heroin

What it is: A chemical first synthesized from the opioid drug morphine by C. R. Alder Wright in 1874. The usage of opium dates back at least to the third millennium BCE, if not earlier.
What it does: Because heroin is essentially a concentrated form of morphine, which in turn is essentially a concentrated form of opium, this entry will deal with the similar effects of these three related drugs. Users of all three report an intense “rush,” and an acute, transcendent state of euphoria. Many users also report anesthetic and analgesic effects. Depending on the dose and the method of administration, effects may last from 30 minutes to 3 hours. This drug is highly addictive – withdrawal symptoms include dysphoria (feelings of displeasure), anxiety, nausea, diarrhea, fever, restlessness, and insomnia.
How it does this: When taken orally, heroin is metabolized in the digestive tract, delivering morphine to the body and brain. When injected, the drug quickly crosses the blood-brain barrier and is converted into morphine there. In either case, morphine binds to μ-opioid receptors, creating euphoria, analgesia, and anti-anxiety effects. It also stimulates histamine release, leading to a “body high” for many users.

…and there you have it. I’ll do my best to keep updating, refining, and adding to this over time; but for now, I just wanted to make sure it’s available.

___________

1. For all these drugs, I’m going to provide the “real” name, and the most common “unofficial” name. Every drug is known by loads of other slang terms, and more are being coined all the time. My goal isn’t to list them, but simply to make it clear what drug I’m talking about.

A Memory Menagerie

What we call “memory” isn’t just one process – or even one type of process. In fact, neuropsychologists classify memories using a system that can be a little bewildering – which is why I’m going to do my best to clear up some distinctions.

Buckle up - this is gonna be a blog post to remember!

So, without further ado, let’s take a tour of this memory zoo.

Part I. Memory time ranges
Scientists today usually divide memory into three basic ranges of time: working memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. However, these distinctions are hotly debated, as I’ll explain below.

1. Working memory
Strange as it might seem, we need a certain kind of memory to assemble a coherent sense of what we think of as “the present.” The exact nature of working memory is still a argued quite a bit, but it’s generally agreed that our overall sense of “the present” refreshes about every 20 to 30 seconds, and contains a very limited number of “items” on which our attention can simultaneously focus. These items can be auditory/phonological, visual/spatial, or conceptual/abstract – and they can be triggered by external stimuli or synthesized from stored data.

Working memory is crucial for tasks like math and reading, which require us to “hold” a representation of an item in our focus of attention for several seconds or more. In short, working memory is roughly synonymous with “what you’re thinking about” in the current moment.

2. Instantaneous memory
Unlike working memory, which by its nature forms a part of our conscious attention, immediate (or “instantaneous”) memories are sensory memories that form almost instantly, fade in a few hundred milliseconds, and may or may not enter our conscious awareness. In the visual domain, this is sometimes known as “iconic memory;” while it’s sometimes called “echoic memory” in the world of sound.

Because instantaneous memory allows informational patterns to persist in our brains after an actual stimulus is no longer present, it helps our brains assemble a cohesive flow of subjective experience. Thus, it allows us to detect changes in visual or auditory information, which lets us perceive movement in animation and film, and detect musical harmonies in sets of tones.

A brief aside: Priming
A topic that often comes up in connection with working memory and instantaneous memory is that of priming – when exposure to a certain stimulus influences our perceptions of later stimuli. One simple example of priming is that when people are shown a word – say, “table” – then asked to complete a word starting in “tab__,” they’re more likely to answer “table” than people who weren’t primed with that word.

A more intriguing example is that when people are shown a set of dots moving in a clockwise direction, and then look at a set of dots moving in a counterclockwise direction, they’re likely to report that the second set of dots was moving more dramatically away from the direction of the first set that it actually way.

The general idea here is that the present moment isn’t discrete from the past – our recent events and ideas leave impressions on our senses, and those impressions are constantly influencing what we perceive at any given instant.

3. Short-term memory
It’s important to clear up a bit of confusion right from the start – many laypeople (and even some scientists) use the terms “working memory” and “short-term memory” interchangeably – today’s neuroscientists and psychologists typically classify working memory as just one subset or type of short-term memory.

Keep in mind that the term “working memory” refers to attention processes – such as reading and math – that temporarily store and manipulate the information that composes our sense of “the present moment.” Though some scientific papers do refer to working memory as short-term memory, the phrase “short-term memory” is more widely used to describe any information that’s kept “on hand” for instant recall – such as a sentence you read a minute ago, or what room you just left.

A lot of debate surrounds the exact capacity of short-term memory, but the range of 7±2 items has been highly influential. More recent research points to a number around 3 or 4. The rate at which short-term memories “decay” is also debated, but it’s widely agreed that without repetition, most of these memories are eventually lost for good.

4. Long-term memory
A lot of scientists think these memories are encoded (written into long-term storage) from short-term ones during sleep. They often stick around for a person’s entire life – at the very least, they’re much harder to forget than short-term or working memories are. They can also be harder to recall, but once they’re loaded into working memory, it’s easier to recall them in the future. One interesting feature is that the mere act of recalling a long-term memory seems to change it.

Part II: Two memory models
Before we go any further, there’s a very important point to make: the exact boundary between short-term and long-term memory is (you guessed it) the cause of a lot of debate. In fact, not all scientists agree that there’s a clear distinction between the three memory systems at all. The two main competing theories about this distinction are known as the dual-store and single-store memory models:

1. The Dual-store memory model
This is the more conventional one – it draws a distinction between short-term and long-term memories (without making any particular statement about the distinction between working memory and short-term memory). One argument in favor of the dual-store model is that long-term memory’s capacity seems to be much larger than that of the short-term and working memory systems.

Objections against the dual-store model mainly center around two arguments:
a) even if experimental subjects are distracted from recalling a recently-performed task, they’ll still perceive the task’s various steps as “recent” and “contiguous” with one another;
b) the length of time an item spends in short-term memory isn’t a direct predictor of its strength in long-term memory.

2. The Single-store memory model
This one posits that there’s only one type of memory, in which context provides the sense of recency. In the single-store model, short-term memory and long-term memory (and, presumably, working memory) are all just different ways of perceiving memories encoded in a single system.

Objections against the single-store model point out that although this theory helps explain some features of memory – such as the fact that recall fades gradually until about 10 minutes have passed, and then fades much more gradually over the next few months – it still doesn’t provide a very clear explanation for some brain phenomena, such as why we apparently need sleep to organize our short-term memories into long-term ones, and why more permanent memories appear to be encoded in separate synaptic maps from short-term ones.

These arguments help to demonstrate that even if short-term and long-term memory are different systems, we may not be defining their boundaries correctly. And so, the discussion continues.

Part III. Memory data types
Within the ranges listed above, many scientists also divide memories along another set of lines. They mainly have to do with what type of information the memories primarily focus on:

1. Explicit memory
In general, it’s easiest to think of explicit memories as “memories you’re conscious of having.” Facts you memorize, events you recall, and numbers you manipulate to solve a math problem are all explicit memories.

Some scientists classify explicit memories into several sub-types:

a) Visuo-spatial memoriesworking memory items dealing with visual images, real or imagined; they seem to refresh about every 10 seconds
b) Phonological memoriesworking memory items dealing with sound and speech, real or imagined; they seem to refresh on a loop that’s about 3 to 4 seconds long
c) Declarative memories – memories for specific facts and events. In the dual-store model, declarative memories are typically considered part of the long-term memory system, and they fall into two sub-sub-categories (yeah, I know, I know…)
     i) Semantic memories – memories of facts/understandings
     ii) Episodic memories – memories of occurrences/events

2. Implicit memory
It’s easiest to think of these memories as “memories for how to do things,” or “how things happened.” They’re stored in a very different way from explicit ones – instead of being consciously learned and recalled, they’re stored through experience and/or practice, and come into play when we involuntarily remember how to ride a bike, how to swim, how falling in love feels, or how embarrassing it was to spill a drink. Instead of focusing on specific facts, they’re focused on associations and environmental stimuli. In the dual-store model, they’re considered part of the long-term memory system.

Studies of implicit memory are mainly concerned with procedural memories – memories for how to perform a task. A procedural memory could be something as simple as how to tie a shoe, or as complex as how to play a sonata. It might even be a cognitive skill. The unifying characteristic is that it’s learned through practice.

The wild card: Emotional memory
These are memories about how a past event felt, or about emotional associations with an explicit memory. Scientists haven’t resolved the question of whether these memories are actually part of the implicit memory system, or represent a system of their own.

Emotional memories are an unusual breed – unlike procedural memories, they seem to form almost instantly; but unlike explicit memories, recalling or suppressing them isn’t under our conscious control. They’re also very hard (but not impossible) to forget. Some scientists have proposed that emotional memories represent an entirely separate – and more primitive – memory system: one that involves the amygdala. The amygdala also helps strengthen explicit and procedural memories, though, so its exact overall role in memory remains unsure.

Part IV: Memory time directions
There’s one last important memory distinction that needs to be mentioned. Like the ones described in Part I above, they’re also related to time – but instead of pertaining to a time range, they’re related to time’s direction.

1. Retrospective memory
This just means a memory for any event, fact, or procedure encountered in the past, after some delay. It can be explicit or implicit, episodic or semantic, long-term or short-term, or even emotional. This term doesn’t apply to working memory, though, because it implies an interruption between the experience that triggered the memory and the act of recalling it.

2. Prospective memory
These are memories involving the timing of events and actions that haven’t happened yet, such as an appointment that’s coming up, a chore that needs to be performed, or a shower you’re about to take. These memories are sometimes called memories for the future (which I think is insanely confusing), but the term basically just refers to our ability to think and plan about events we haven’t actually experienced.

Well, there you have it. I hope I’ve helped make things clearer instead of thoroughly confusing you. If you’ve got any questions, or would like me to tidy any of this up, feel free to drop me a line and I’ll do what I can. But I hope this has piqued your interest in memory research, and shown you how far the field still has to go before anyone agrees on…well, on much of anything.

In all honesty, it seems silly to me that the different types of memory are so hard to remember – if that’s not evidence that the universe is absurd, I don’t know what is!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 75 other followers