Tag Archives: sharpbrains.com

The dope on Dopamine

I just finished reading Kelly McGonigal‘s The Willpower InstinctIt is a fascinating look at the psychology and physiology behind our ability to control our actions. In the book talk below, McGonigal discusses some of the research covered in her book.

But it isn’t willpower I want to write about; it’s what I learned about DOPAMINE. Dopamine is the culprit behind folks with Parkinson’s Disease having movement and balance issues. More precisely, it is the lack of dopamine that poses the problem. Back in  May, 2007, when I first began blogging about the brain in order to learn about how it functions, I wrote a post about dopamine.

McGonigal has added to my understanding of dopamine. She describes the neurotransmitter as kicking in in anticipation of a reward. That reward can be anything that makes you feel good.

Dopamine tells the rest of the brain what to pay attention to and what to get our greedy little hands on. A dopamine rush doesn’t create happiness itself–the feeling is more like arousal. We feel alert, awake, and captivated. We recognize the possibility of feeling good and are willing to work for that feeling.

When there is insufficient dopamine, besides impacting movement and balance, the brain’s natural reward system feels a sense of apathy, according to McGonigal. She goes on to say that in Parkinson’s patients, while this state may pass for peacefulness, it is actually depression.

What further fascinated me was her explanation of the potential negative effects of dopamine drug therapy on people with Parkinson’s.

The standard treatment for Parkinson’s disease is a two-drug combo: L-dopa, which helps the brain make dopamine, and a dopamine agonist, which stimulates dopamine receptors in the brain to mimic the action of dopamine. When patients begin drug therapy, their brains are flooded with way more dopamine than they’ve seen in a long time. This relieves the main symptoms of the disease, but also creates new problems that no one expected.

Medical journals are full of case studies documenting the unintended side effects of these drugs.

McGonigal then describes one person who “developed insatiable [food] cravings”, another person who “developed a daily gambling habit”, and yet another who “all of sudden found himself afflicted with an increased appetite, a taste for alcohol, and what his wife called ‘an excessive sex urge’…All of these cases were completely resolved by taking the patients off the dopamine-enhancing drug.”

Essentially, it seems that as with much in life, there needs to be a balance in the amount of dopamine your brain processes.

For more on Parkinson’s and dopamine, see my previous posts:

Successful Aging

Oh dear, yet another large print book. I have nothing against the concept of large print, ideally this makes it easier to read for people with vision issues. However, I wish the publishers did a better job with layout and leading, the latter essentially being the spacing between lines. Lines of large type clumped on a page does not, actually, make for easier reading (for me).

John W Rose, MD, and Rober L Kahn, PhD, compiled the results of a MacArthur Foundation Study on aging and the result is the 1998 book, Successful Aging. Given that this book was published 14 years ago, there was nothing new in it that I had not already seen in some other format.

There were, however, two items that did particularly strike me. The first was the wonderful optimism the authors exude in describing both the results of the long term study and what the findings could mean for the future. While they break down the study and discuss multiple aspects of aging, I think the book’s message can be summed up quite simply. To paraphrase Carol Dweck’s findings about mindsets, those with growth mindsets will find it easier to deal with aging and, as such, will likely have a positive impact on their own aging process. Those who have a fixed mindset will find that when the going gets tough, they may be less flexible in managing repercussions, which will likely have a less positive – and perhaps negative – impact on their own aging process.

The idea of mindsets holds true, as well, for younger peoples’ perceptions of older people. As a teacher, I have always believed that students rise or fall to the level of expectations held for them. Similarly, if younger people can have a positive mindset about older people and the process of aging, this is more likely to have a beneficial impact on their interactions with older people and on their own aging process.

Due to the date of the book, 1998, I tended to question some of the statistics the authors noted, especially regarding the prevalence of Alzheimer’s in the aging population. I am reasonably confident that the numbers of people with, and expected to exhibit some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s is far greater than what they forecast back in 1998. You can read more about the Latest Alzheimer’s Statistics in the United States in this article on the Texas Alzheimer’s Research and Care Consortium site. In any case, both resources note that dementia and Alzheimer’s are not part of the normal aging process.

Similar to what I have gleaned from other books on aging, and from attendance at various Learning & the Brain conferences, Rose and Kahn note there are several factors a person can engage with to help their brains and bodies age normally. Turns out we do have  some control over how we age, it’s not all in the genes.

  • engage in physical activity – good for the body and for the brain, as exercise helps stimulate BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor
  • fertilize your social network – showing care for and an interest in others, and allowing them to do the same for you makes for a strong support system
  • believe that you can manage whatever comes your way – while this may not always be the case, having a “cup half full” approach to aging can help you handle the blips

According to research, focusing on the above three elements will help an individual age successfully. Essentially, this approach translates to preventive care, and preventive care can aid with (in the words of the authors) “avoiding disease, maintaining high cognitive and physical function, and engagement with life.” Alternatively,

Disability in older people results from three key factors: 1) the impact of disease, or more commonly, many diseases at once; 2) lifestyle factors, such as exercise and diet, which directly influence physical fitness and risk of disease; and 3) the biological changes that occur with advancing age – formally known as senescence.

For more on healthy aging, here are some of my prior posts plus an article by Elkhonon Goldberg.

On Music, Dopamine, and Making Sense of Sound

Last week SharpBrains published part one of my two posts about Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music, and now part two is posted! On Music, Dopamine, and Making Sense of Sound explores how music impacts people who have Parkinson’s, dementia or Alzheimer’s.

If you know anyone with Parkinson’s, dementia or Alzheimer’s, and if they currently do not have music in their lives, I hope you will share my two posts with them and with their families. Thank you, on their behalf!

Music as Therapy: Music, Movement, Cognition!

A number of my posts have dealt with my foray into teaching yoga and facilitating movement for folks who are dealing with movement limitations, the normal process of aging, or changes in cognitive functioning due to dementia or Alzheimer’s. I have also mentioned Daniel Levitin, the author of This Is Your Brain On Music, related posts being available here.

I am delighted to share that yesterday part 1 of two posts furthering the above conversations has been posted on the SharpBrains blog. My post is Music as Therapy: Music, Movement, Cognition! I hope you’ll pop over to read it, and if you have any feedback, please feel free to share, especially if you have related experiences that we can all learn from. Thanks!

This Is Your Brain On Music

This morning I was putting away the syrup that garnished the scrumptious french toast made by my husband, and as I closed the refrigerator door, some of the many tiles of magnetic poetry caught my eye. As our sons come and go on home visits, they alter the poetry, so I have no idea which one crafted this gem, but how appropriate given the book I am currently reading!

I am two-thirds of the way through Daniel J. Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music. When this book came out in 2007, I ordered a hard cover copy from amazon and eagerly awaited its delivery. When it arrived, I thumbed through the book and decided it wasn’t for me.

Rather than letting it languish on my book shelf, I gave it to a student – an accomplished high school musician who played (and still plays) clarinet and saxophone, who has studied at Julliard, and with who I had a close relationship developed over years of her assisting with faculty technology workshops and my being her advisor for her eleventh grade independent study project that resulted in her authoring and publishing this book. As her lulu.com bio states, she is “currently studying Music Education and Clarinet Performance at the University of Maryland, College Park.”

Now, five years later, guess what book I am reading? This time I have a paperback copy borrowed from my local library. And I am two-thirds of the way through Levitin’s book, absorbing his words and relating them back to my experience – in caring for my Dad, who had Parkinson’s and Alzheimers; in teaching yoga to people with mobility or other limitations; in teaching yoga to people who are at the upper realms of aging; in learning to teach dance to people with Parkinson’s. There will be much more about all of this as I continue to read, take notes, reflect and wonder, with a possibility of everything coming together in a blog post for SharpBrains.

But for now, I am just smiling at the magnetic poetry on my refrigerator door. Oh, and wouldn’t you know it – last night Levitin’s invitation to participate in a survey about music came across my Twitter feed. Of course, I participated! For those of you unfamiliar with Twitter, I do not know Levitin but I “follow” him, so everything he tweets about shows up in my timeline. How fitting that the magnetic poetry and Levitin’s tweet both deal with music and mood.

Brain Cues

Today is my Dad’s 83rd birthday! As some of you may know, my Dad has Alzheimer’s and resides in a nursing home some twenty minutes from where we live. Today is also a snow day, causing our December vacation to begin one day early! And today my eighth post for SharpBrains was published. I have written extensively about the Learning & the Brain conference, and my Sharp article discusses how some of the recent conference content applies to education.  

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snowday