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Forget brain regions, it’s all about networks in neuroscience

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Dr Ginny Smith - Neuroscience communicator and author of Overloaded

Having worked for some of the biggest media outlets in the science industry, Ginny Smith has been making brain science accessible for several years. With the release of her first solo book, she sits down with NR Times to discuss the ever-changing world of neuroscience.

The neurotransmitters in our brains and the chemicals that go with them continue to puzzle scientists and academics.

Making sense of it all is Ginny Smith with the release of her new book.

Overloaded: How Every Aspect of Your Life is Influenced by Your Brain Chemicals explores how chemicals control what we do, from basic survival instincts to more complex processes, like forming relationships.

Overloaded by Ginny Smith

Recognised by New Scientist as one of the top science books in 2021, Overloaded was two years in the making.

One of its central themes is the brain working within networks which are all connected, rather than the traditional notion of individual regions performing specific tasks.

Speaking to NR Times, Smith – who has produced science programmes for the BBC, Cosmic Shambles and the Naked Scientist – explained how changes in technology have brought about different interpretations of how the brain works.

“This idea of regions of the brain that do X or Y is starting to feel a bit outdated,” she said. “Talking to neuroscientists now, it’s all about networks and combinations of regions that talk to each other.”

And this shift in our understanding of the brain could shape new treatments in future.

“The drugs we have at the moment are the best thing that we have, but boosting things everywhere is a bit of a blunt instrument in something so precise as the brain.

“It’s not about if you need something to function, then having more of that is good. No, it’s all about finding that Goldilocks spot.

“One of the things I’m quite excited about for the future is the idea that we might be able to get more granular as to which areas of the brain are actually affected, perhaps on a person-by-person basis.

“It may be that at some point in the future, if you go to your doctor experiencing depression or anxiety, they could scan your brain to find out which area is actually affected and somehow target drugs specifically to that area.”

Overloaded brings together over 30 experts to give a clearer insight into how molecules like adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin work.

These chemicals may sound familiar but they often bring a lot of confusion around what they actually do – something Dr Smith was keen to address.

She explained how the misrepresentation of these substances in the media motivated her to set the record straight with the book.

“I started seeing a lot of mentions of these various brain chemicals. But they were often really oversimplified; like this idea that serotonin is the ‘happiness chemical’.

“It was stuff that takes a kernel of truth from real neuroscience, but simplifies it to the point where it no longer makes any sense at all.

“So I thought that it would be quite interesting to delve into a bit more complexity and find out what is actually going on and how much do we actually know about these chemicals?”

Although now hugely passionate about neuroscience, Smith admitted that she fell into the subject after initially applying to study chemistry at the University of Cambridge.

“The way I’d encountered it before had been much more at the social psychology end of things, but the way it was taught here was like it was a real science where you did experiments.

“The complexity of the subject attracted me to it and I like a challenge. But also that the questions around it seemed so important to me. They seem like such vital questions to answer.”

Dr Smith switched her focus to neuropsychology and from here worked part-time in a lab. Due to her self-admitted short attention span, however, she found herself more drawn to the communication aspect of the field.

“I’ve been talking about the brain to anyone who will listen since then,” she said.

Her ability to make neurochemistry coherent was the catalyst for Braintastic! Science, the platform she founded to educate young people about how their brain works.

“Psychology and neuroscience aren’t sciences you necessarily meet at school. But one of the things I like is explaining that there’s this whole other branch of science that they might not come across.

“It’s important to have a basic understanding of the brain. It can be so useful in so many ways.”

Indeed, a good understanding of the brain is something Smith would liked to have had as a youngster.

“I wish that when I’d been a teenager, I had known a bit more about how a teenager’s brain works. I think it would have made life so much easier.

“Parents also understanding more about how young people’s brains develop would help them understand and relate to them.”

In fact, greater brain knowledge across the board in wider society would be beneficial, she believes.

“I think everyone can benefit from knowing a little bit more about how their brains and how other people’s brains work. I think it would make us a kinder, more tolerant society.”

While covering big neuroscience topics, the book is characterised by personal experiences and stories.

“One of the things I really like when I’m talking to scientists is hearing their passion and their stories for why they got into doing what they do.

“It also shows how science relates back to everyday life. That’s the thing about neuroscience and psychology, it’s all about us.

“I can’t tell you everything about the brain in one book, but I hope it sparks readers’ curiosity, and makes them want to go out and find out more about their brain.”

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Osteoarthritis: breaking the cycle

Medical technology company Ottobock shares its expertise on approaches to the condition.

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Sponsored feature

Why is Cartilage Important?

Bones that come in contact with other bones are covered by cartilage at their contact points. Cartilage does not have blood vessels – it is supplied with nutrients through movement of the joint. That’s why regular exercise is so important!

Cartilage ensures that the joint surfaces move against each other in the most efficient way and with little friction. It absorbs shock, cushioning the joint, and distributes the forces acting on the joint.

If cartilage is damaged and its gliding properties are affected, it can no longer serve its purpose and the joints range of movement can become limited.

Typical Progression of Osteoarthritis

When osteoarthritis of the knee develops due to joint malalignment, an accident, advancing age, obesity or excessive strain, the damaged cartilage is no longer able to properly fulfil its function.

This results in pain and re­duced mobility. The affected patient instinctively assumes a relieving posture to reduce strain on the knee.

However, this often leads to new prob­lems in other places, such as the hip, and reduces the supply of nutrients to the cartilage, for which movement is required – sparking a vicious circle.

The cartilage develops cracks and begins to break down. At the same time, the bone thickens at the site of the damage.

When the cartilage layer is completely worn away, the affected bones come into direct contact and rub against each other causing joint pain and inflammation.

The thickest joint cartilage is located behind the kneecap (patella). This is an area of high stress. Osteoarthritis occurring in this area is known as patellafemoral osteoarthritis

Signs and Symptoms

There are several common symptoms that signal knee osteoarthritis. They can occur individually or together. However, with the initial onset, you may not notice any of these symptoms

When symptoms appear they usually occur in the following order:

  • Cracking in the joint
  • Pain during load bearing activities, such as carrying a heavy object
  • Pain during every day activities, such as climbing the stairs
  • Reduced mobility
  • Swelling and inflammation

Non-Invasive Treatments

Joint specific exercises: with regular exercise mobility can be maintained and muscle strengthened, ensuring the cartilage is supplied with the nutrients it needs.

Temperature: with acute inflammation, cold relieves pain and reduces swelling. Heat relaxes the muscles and tendons and increases the flow of nutrients. Heat may only be applied when the joint is not inflamed.

Creams: various over the counter products are available at your local pharmacy including gels and creams that can help relieve pain.

Orthopaedic devices (braces and supports): these are applied externally to the knee, reducing pain and improving mobility.

Lifestyle: living a healthy lifestyle can help to combat osteoarthritis. A healthy diet and an active lifestyle reduces the chance of obesity, putting less stress and strain through the knee joints.

Orthotic Options

An orthotic fitting is a key component in the treatment of osteoarthritis. It can provide the following:

  • Pain relief
  • Support daily activities
  • Support during activities that affect the joint, whether at work or during sports

Did you know?

An osteoarthritis patient takes an average of around 1,200 tablets a year to manage pain. But this can lead to damage to the stomach, bowel and liver.

An orthosis from the Agilium line is therefore a good alternative. It’s worth-while for anyone with knee osteoarthritis to test the effectiveness of the orthoses themselves.

The Agilium Line

The braces in our Agilium line are designed specifically to target the symptoms of osteoarthritis of the knee.

Each works in a different way to address the various characteristics of osteoarthritis of the knee. At the same time, we placed great emphasis on their comfort and suitability for daily use.

The Agilium Freestep, the Agilium Reactive and the Agilium Softfit are used to treat unicompartmental osteoarthritis of the knee.

The Agilium Patella is used for patients with patellofemoral arthritis.

The Agilium Freestep is used to treat OA, although it is not applied directly to the knee. Instead is worn on the foot, right inside the shoe! For targeted relieve, it alters the load-line of the knee – the point where the body weight impacts the cartilage.

The Agilium Softfit is a pull on knee brace with a textile base and single upright that stabilises and relieves the knee using a three point force system to offload the affected compartment (side) of the knee.

The Agilium Reactive also uses a three point force system to offload the affected compartment (side) of the knee. However, the innovative closure system in the upper calf provides comfort while sitting without compromising the stable position when standing.

The Agilium Patella combines a textile structure and stabilising component with a dynamic re-alignment mechanism enabling it to maintain the central alignment of the knee cap, reducing pressure behind the knee cap.

Find the appropriate brace with Agilium Select.

Visit our website or go to ottobock.com/agilium-select

If you would like to know more about any of these products please get in touch via orthoticsuk@ottobock.com or visit our website for more information: www.ottobock.co.uk

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Masturbation linked to stroke in medical case study

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Doctors in Japan have reported how masturbation sparked a bleed on the brain of a 51-year-old man; as published in the Journal of Stroke and Cerebrovascular Diseases.

Doctors at the Nagoya City University Graduate School of Medical Sciences in Japan explained that the man attended hospital after orgasming, with the sudden onset of a searing headache that lasted for around a minute. This was followed by an intense bout of vomiting.

A CT scan showed an acute subarachnoid hemorrhage in the left hemisphere.

The researchers note that masturbation causes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and noradrenaline plasma levels – which are likely to contribute to the risk of splitting a blood vessel in the brain and result in a hemorrhagic stroke.

The man was treated with stents and coiling, two techniques used to bolster the blood vessel and maintain blood flow to the brain, and he went on to make a full recovery.

The study authors say that they found just two other cases of masturbation-linked strokes in other scientific literature.

The Japanese man survived and was discharged after nearly two weeks in hospital in an “excellent” condition.

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Engineers develop ultrasound patch to monitor blood flow

Breakthrough could help to better predict stroke and other cardiovascular conditions earlier.

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Engineers at the University of California San Diego have developed an ultrasound patch that can be worn on the skin. It monitors the blood flow through major arteries and veins deep within the body.

It is hoped that it could help clinicians diagnose cardiovascular conditions faster. It could also help to diagnose blockages in the arteries which could lead to strokes or heart attacks.

The ultrasound patch continuously monitors blood flow as well as blood pressure and heart function in real-time. Assessing how much blood flows through a patient’s blood vessels could help diagnose blood clots, heart valve problems and poor circulation in the limbs.

For many patients, blood flow is not measured during a regular visit to their doctors. It is usually assessed after a patient shows signs of cardiovascular problems.

The patch can be worn on the neck or chest and can measure cardiovascular signals up to 14 centimetres inside the body non invasively with high accuracy.

How the patch works

The patch is made of a thin, flexible polymer that sticks to the skin.

There is an array of millimetre-sized ultrasound transducers on the patch known as an ultrasound phased array.

These are individually controlled by a computer. Another feature is that the ultrasound beam can be tilted at different angles to areas in the body that are not directly below the patch.

It can operate in two modes. In one, all of the transducers can be synched together to transmit ultrasound waves which produce a high-intensity beam that focuses on one spot.

This can be up to 14cm deep in the body.

A wearable ultrasound patch on the skin

The other mode allows the transducers to be programmed to transmit out of sync producing beams at different angles.

In being able to manipulate the beams, it gives the device multiple capacities for monitoring central organs as well as blood flow with high resolution.

When the electricity flows through the transducers, they vibrate while emitting ultrasound waves that travel through the skin into the body.

When they penetrate a blood vessel, they encounter the movement of red blood cells flowing inside. The cell movement changes how the waves are transmitted back to the patch.

This change is recorded by the patch and creates a visual recording of the blood flow. It can also be used to create moving images of the heart’s walls.

The benefits:

Sheng Xu, professor of nanoengineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering said:

“This type of wearable device can give you a more comprehensive, more accurate picture of what’s going on in deep tissues and critical organs like the heart and the brain, all from the surface of the skin.”

Xu added: “This is a first in the field of wearables because existing wearable sensors typically only monitor areas right below them.

“If you want to sense signals at a different position, you have to move the sensor to that location. With this patch, we can probe areas that are wider than the device’s footprint. This can open up a lot of opportunities.”

The researchers say that the easy to use patch could allow patients to wear the patch and monitor the results themselves. It doesn’t depend on a technician to read the results

The next stage

The patch is not yet ready for clinical use. The researchers are currently working on a way to make the electronics wireless as it currently needs a power source and benchtop machine.

Image credit: Nature Biomedical Engineering

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