Tag Archives: neurotransmitters

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:


Notes from a 6th grade session on Stress

There are three 6th grade sections at the school where I currently teach. These sixth graders have an enlightened and passionate Science teacher who makes study of the brain their main focus throughout the year. Among the many topics explored, she guides the students to learn about how they learn – metacognition in real time! She invited me to do a session with each section about stress and relaxation. Below are my notes.

If anyone has suggestions for improving this session, please leave a comment. Thanks!


Room Setup – this was done in the Science classroom where all the furniture was movable. We moved the tables to the perimeter of the room and placed the chairs in a semi- circle (a large C shape) on the inside of that perimeter, facing the board. We tried to have equal room between the chairs to facilitate movement activities. My chair was part of the circle and near the board for easy access.

The movement portions were accompanied by music played on my laptop using external speakers.

How’s everyone feeling? Introductions

Talk about how there are butterflies in my stomach due to: not knowing any of the students and being excited to teach a topic of huge interest to me. Further note that, due to nervousness and excitement, I will likely not remember everyone’s names.

Nonetheless, to try and help me recall names, please introduce yourself and tell me something about you. (Depending upon the time – for the first two groups we had 45 mins, for the third group we had 90 mins – have the kids also make a movement with their arms or body as they introduce themselves.)

Synovial Joint Warmup to music (Wade in the Water – about 4 mins)

  • toes & ankles
  • shoulders
  • gentle neck roll – avoid dropping head back
  • wrist rolls
  • squat knee circles
  • hip circles
  • empty coat sleeve twists
  • hokey-pokey right arm, then left arm
  • hokey-pokey right leg, then left leg
  • mouth & eyes
  • whole body

What happens inside your body when everything is pretty much feeling fine?

  • HOMEOSTASIS (homeo = same; stasis = stable) – a fairly stable balance in your body between the energizing & calming chemicals inside you
  • the SYMPATHETIC (activates “fight or flight”) & PARASYMPATHETIC (activates relaxation response) nervous systems are in synch with one another

Stress, anyone? What happens in your body when you fall out of homeostasis? i.e. out of balance –> you experience STRESS

  • “fight or flight”
  • release of CORTISOL
  • confusion
  • a sense of learned helplessness
  • a sense of feeling threatened

What’s the deal with CORTISOL?

  • a little bit is helpful for energy
  • helps enhance long term memory, i.e. learning
  • LIMBIC system is the Drama Department of your brain – memory & learning are enhanced when there is an emotional component
  • however, too much emotion in either direction results in more cortisol, which is detrimental towards learning b/c too much cortisol can kill neurons in the hippocampus, which is a major player in forming memory i.e. in learning
  • insufficient sleep can increase cortisol

Long-term effects of too much cortisol include:

  • decreased immune system, i.e. more likely to get sick
  • reduces memory ability, i.e. ability to recall existing memories & form new memories
  • impacts social skills & creative skills

What can cause stress? (below is a generic list –> rather than share these, do the BALANCE ACTIVITY listed below) 

  • lots of excitement
  • deadlines (school work, being late)
  • intense competition
  • hectic environment
  • really fast music
  • strong feeling of impending failure
  • surprises
  • being held accountable
  • feeling out of control
  • trying to accomplish something but not having what you need
  • an unusual challenge
  • insufficient sleep

Positive and Negative Stress – BALANCE ACTIVITY

  • talk about the Balance Scale (like the scales of Justice – one cup on either side of the center) – discuss what the balance represents
  • hand out index cards to each person and have them write down the negative stressors in their lives and the feelings associated with those stressors
  • ask the kids to each share one item from their list, and explain that it is quite possible that some kids will have the same or similar stressors
  • have the kids come up and place their Negative Stressor index cards on one side of the scale – what happens to homeostasis?
  • leave the cards in place on the balance and hand out a second set of index cards to each person – have them write down the positive stressors in their lives and the feelings associated with those stressors
  • ask the kids to each share one item from their list
  • take the negative stressor index cards off the balance and place them to the side – have the kids come up and place their Positive Stressor index cards on the other side of the scale – what happens to homeostatis?
  • kids will often quickly comment that the negative stressors need to return to the scale in order to return to a balance – discuss what this means in terms of themselves

How to deal with stress  (below is a generic list –> rather than share these, do the SUGGESTIONS ACTIVITY listed below) 

  • exercise (but not if it’s 4 hours or less before sleep)
  • eat a light, non-spicy dinner
  • get sufficient sleep
  • drink plenty of water –> there’s more water in your brain than anywhere else in your body (followed by muscles, then kidneys) and the stress response kicks in if access to water is restricted; within 5 mins of drinking water there is a noticeable decline in corticoids
  • lack of water is #1 reason for daytime tiredness –> hits your muscles and your brain
  • and try these relaxation techniques (we did a yoga session that includes various poses, breathing techniques and guided relaxation AFTER we did the SUGGESTIONS ACTIVITY noted below)

Dealing with Stress – SUGGESTIONS ACTIVITY

  • go around the room and have kids share what they do to destress
  • keep a running list on the board
  • do not judge the ideas (for instance, if they resort to eating comfort food that is filled with sugar)

Follow-up activities

  • using the list of kid-generated destressors as the basis, discuss positive ways to deal with stress
  • go further into the LIMBIC system
  • lead into a discussion/lesson on the Teen Brain

What is Parkinson’s Disease?

The first day of the Dance for PD workshop included an informative overview of Parkinson’s Disease by neuropsychiatrist Melissa Frumin of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA. She spoke to us not just as a doctor, but also as a caretaker who had first hand experience after caring for her father who had Parkinson’s. Melissa’s talk was illuminating, as it was the first time I had an understanding of some of what was going on inside my Dad’s brain and body, and I began to have a medical understanding of what he must have dealt with.

Everything that follows is from Melissa’s talk, and I was so intent on taking down the information that much of the medical description is her exact wording.

Primary Symptoms
It turns out that the cardinal symptom of PD is the tremor, which typically begins on one side in one hand with the fingers rolling in towards the palm. The tremor is a resting tremor, which means when the hand is engaged in movement the tremor seems to disappear. While asymmetrical at the start, the tremor can become bilateral, impacting the other side.

Another symptom is the slowness of movement, often manifested by a dragging of the feet and resulting in a shuffling gait. Rigidity can set in, causing a stooped posture. And the final major symptom is postural instability, making it difficult to self-respond to imbalance.

All of these symptoms are neurological. The body part is still fully functional; it is the brain’s messaging system that is no longer sending the appropriate signals to the body part. In other words, the hands and the legs could still work just fine if the brain were able to get the messages out to those body parts.

Motor Symptoms
There are a number of motor symptoms, in addition to the tremor and movement issues. Faces begin to no longer exhibit expression, causing a disconnect between what a person says they feel and what their face displays. Handwriting can become  very tiny, resulting in what is called micrographia. Vision can become blurred due to contrasts no longer being discernible. Therefore, large print does not help but books on tape could be quite useful. Constipation and difficulty swallowing are other motor issues that are due, as with all the previous symptoms, to a lack of internal coordination.

Non-motor Symptoms
Imagine how you might feel if these symptoms began to invade your existence. Now add to the mix the non-motor component of Parkinson’s – cognitive dysfunction resulting in dementia that impacts executive functioning. I have written a number of posts about executive functioning, which has to do with decision making, organization, and self-management functions. With Parkinson’s, the dementia takes a toll on the ability to multitask – the ability to tend to more than one item or activity at a time, in other words, the ability to rapidly switch between multiple activities.

The result of all of these symptoms is typically depression, though not because the person has Parkinson’s and feels bad about it (though they may, indeed, feel badly), but rather because Parkinson’s is a brain disorder that effects the ability to initiate activity. The inability to initiate can cause anxiety. Additionally, there can by psychosis manifested by hallucinations that are usually visual or auditory or smell-based, but can also be paranoid.

Couple this with sleep disturbance due to getting up in the middle of a dream to act out that dream (which can lead to falls in the night), genuine fatigue (as opposed to fatigue from depression), and drooling, and you have a sense of the toll that Parkinson’s symptoms takes on a human body.

What is happening in the brain?
The basal ganglia, a compilation of neurons that function as a unit and assists with coordinating movement, contains the substantia nigra, an area of the brain that produces dopamine. With Parkinson’s, 50 to 60 percent of the neurons in the substantia nigra begin to deteriorate, resulting in a loss of dopamine. This loss of dopamine impacts the balance of excitation and inhibition of neurons. And this loss of balance in neuron firing means that signals sent from the brain are not being executed properly. Since the basal ganglia deals with movement, sure signs of Parkinson’s are the primary symptoms detailed at the start of this post.

In general, Parkinson’s is not a genetic disorder and is rare before the age of 40, though Michael J. Fox was an exception at age thirty-two. Worldwide some five million people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s, for which the largest risk factor is old age. And I found out just this afternoon, from a new acquaintance who is active in local and national Parkinson’s organizations, two-thirds of PD individuals are men, one-third are women.

Additional Resources

The PD Partnership – words of wisdom, from a caregiver, for caregivers and the people they care for

What is Parkinson’s Disease – includes links to numerous information resources in both print and digital format, including the Second Edition of the Parkinson’s Disease Resource List

Ready for Prime Time

[5/3 UPDATE: A number of my posts have referenced Frances Jenkins, and she is included in the slide show below. On March 1, 2010, NPR’s Morning Edition had a five minute interview with Jenkins about The Teen Brain: It’s Just Not Grown Up Yet.]

This is the slide show that will accompany three interactive sessions spread out over April and May with a class of high school students. The sessions will cover The Teen Brain, followed by the limbic system, and finishing with the impact of drugs and alcohol on the teen brain.

I tend to not include many transitions in slide shows, but the transitions in this slide show are part of the impact of the presentation, and wish they transferred upon the upload to slideshare. For instance, the revealing of slides 17 to 20 helps bring home the point of the limbic system, and slides 24 through 29 display one word at a time, each with an effect related to the meaning of the word. After each new word is displayed, the high schoolers will be using their laptops to take self-portraits of themselves making a face to represent the emotion.

Slideshare houses my presentations, though I have yet to figure out how to get the presentation notes to display. Below are the URLs for the video clips and web sites. Hmm, just thought of a creative exercise to use with my Presentation Communication class next fall – here is a slide show without the presentation notes, now you make up the oral component!

slide 5 video clip

slide 8 video clip

All of the Frances Jensen video clips can be accessed from:

slide 23 video clip comes from Tom Wujec’s TED Talk at:

and the Wizard of Oz clip comes from:

While not referenced in this presentation, I highly recommend Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk at:

and for entertainment while learning, Pinky & the Brain explain the parts of the brain at:

Opening Faculty Meetings: Intro to Simulations

Embracing Diversity in Learning and Teaching
[all the posts about the opening session program: 1 2 3 4 5]

For this second day of opening faculty meetings we wanted to set the tone for what would follow, which was two sets of 45 minute workshops. Keeping in mind that just about everyone was still in a summer mindset, gradually making the transition from summer mode to a fixed schedule, with far less time for being active, and we knew what we had to do. Engagement was the name of the game!

Screen shot 2009-09-28 at 7.17.11 PMAs folks entered the auditorium they were greeted with upbeat music and a continuously looping slide show displaying some 40 people – many of them well known, including students at our school – who have learning differences. We could detect definite “I didn’t know…” comments in response to seeing some of the better known faces on the screen.

Below are our introductory remarks. I invite you to pick up a pencil and piece of paper, and join along!


Good morning and Welcome back!

You will now need a piece of paper and a pencil. If you do not have one, please raise a hand. Screen shot 2009-09-28 at 7.30.53 PM

We are going to take a moment and do a little sketching. Please turn to look at a colleague sitting next to you. You will have 30 seconds to draw each other. Begin now! [If you click the image of the person’s face, you will be taken to Tim Brown’s TED Talk on creativity and play, from where the drawing idea was taken.]

[30 seconds later…] Okay, pencils down! Hear that laughter? That is the sound of serotonin and dopamine being released in your brains, two of the “feel good” neurotransmitters, which are generated in your affective network and prime you to pay attention. You remember those three neural networks we talked about yesterday – the recognition or sensory network, the affective aka emotional network, and the strategic network, the all-important executive functioning area of your brain that some say is more important than IQ.

3 networks

By the way, please hold on to the paper and pencil, as you will be using them again.

As a community we read Kristi’s book this summer, and it was part of our inspiration for yesterday’s and today’s activities. As Candy and I met regularly with Kristi throughout the last school year, we couldn’t help but think about the variety of learners amongst us, both the students AND the adults.

Robert Fulghum, the very author who wrote “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”, summed it up quite nicely when he wrote the following [which comes from It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It]:

brain pic 2image comes from Jill Bolte Taylor’s Stroke of Insight TED Talk

[the brain] I have one of these things between my ears. It is made up entirely of raw meat at the moment. It is fueled by yesterday’s baloney sandwich, potato chips, and chocolate milk. And everything I am doing at the moment-everything I have ever done or will do-passes through this lump. I made it; I own it. And it is the most mysterious thing on earth. Now I can kind of understand the mechanical work of the brain – stimulating breathing, moving blood, directing protein traffic. It’s all about chemistry and electricity. A motor. I know about motors.

But this three-pound raw-meat motor also contains all the limericks I know, a recipe for how to cook a turkey, the remembered smell of my junior high locker room, all my sorrows, the ability to double clutch a pickup truck, the face of my wife when she was young, the formulas for E=MC squared, and A2 + B2 = C2, the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the sound of the first cry of my firstborn son, the cure for hiccups, the words to the fight song of St. Olaf’s College, fifty years worth of dreams, how to tie my shoes, the taste of cod-liver oil, an image of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and a working understanding of the Dewey Decimal System. It’s all there in the MEAT.

One cubic centimeter of brain contains ten billion bits of information and it processes five thousand bits a second. And somehow it evolved over a zillion years from a molten ball of rock, Earth. ….The Mystery of Mysteries is present and it includes us.

The single most powerful statement to come out of brain research in the last 25 years is this: We are as different from one another on the inside of our heads as we appear to be different from one another on the outside of our heads.

Look around and see the infinite variety of human heads – skin, hair, age, ethnic characteristics, size, color and shape. And know that on the inside such differences are even greater – what we know, how we learn, how we process information, what we remember and forget, our strategies for functioning and coping.

Add to that the understanding that the “world out there” is as much a projection from inside our heads as it is a perception, and pretty soon you are up against the realization that it is a miracle that we communicate at all.

It is almost unbelievable that we are dealing with the same reality. We operate on a kind of loose consensus about existence, at best.

From a practical point of view, day by day, this kind of information makes me a little more patient with the people I live with. I am less inclined to protest “Why don’t you see it the way I do?” and more inclined to say “You see it that way? Holy cow, how amazing!”

Our goal for this morning is for all of us to look deeply into the learning process for our own sake and for the sake of the people with whom we work. As learners, we are all on a continuum, intelligence is not fixed. Science has proved that intelligence is incremental and the more you learn beyond your formal schooling, the healthier your brain will be later in life. Armed with this understanding, our affective networks become willing partners in the learning process. Carol Dweck is going to expand upon this.

Each of us has strengths and struggles that are unique to ourselves. When we acknowledge that in ourselves and others, we can move forward to collaboratively help each other be the best that we can be. We are going to take a few minutes now and do some simulations to get us thinking about a few types of struggles that learners – be they kids OR adults – can have.

[stay tuned for the simulations in the upcoming posts]

Move It!

Holy BDNF Batperson! BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) is a protein in the brain that John Medina, author of Brain Rules, likens to “miracle-gro for the brain”. It turns out that EXERCISE boosts not only BDNF, but also the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, all known for helping the brain to feel good and be alert, as well as assisting with neuron communication.

This probably does not come as a surprise to many, because the benefits of exercise have been espoused in the news on and off for many years. Exercise helps alleviate stress, can be a preventative for many diseases, and can assist with weight control and body image. The surprising aspect, really, is why you can still visit schools where phys ed has been curtailed (budget issues) and businesses where office workers still spend the overwhelming portion of their day in sedentary conditions.

Rule #1 in John Medina’s Brain Rules states:

Exercise boosts brain power.

And he goes on to explain what happens inside your brain when you exercise your body.

• Your brain needs oxygen and food. While your brain may only represent about 2 percent of your body weight, it accounts for about 20 percent of your total energy usage.

• What exercise does is provide your body greater access to the oxygen and the food.

• The more you exercise, the more tissues you can feed and the more toxic waste you can remove.

• …exercise literally increases blood volume in a region of the brain called the dentate gyrus. … The dentate gyrus is a vital constituent of the hippocampus, a region deeply involved in memory formation.

• BDNF…keeps existing neurons young and healthy, rendering them much more willing to connect with one another. It also encourages neurogenesis, the formation of new cells in the brain.

I’m a swimmer and a walker and a kayaker. On average, during the school year, we walk about 15 miles a week. And during the summer I swim several miles a week. Take away my exercise and I get grumpy. With my exercise, I have more energy and think more clearly.

You don’t have to take my experiences and writing, or John Medina’s word for it. There is a wealth of information regarding the physical and cognitive benefits of exercise. Aaron Nelson, in stating his pointers for improving memory, listed regular exercise as his first nugget of advice, followed by getting a good night’s sleep and alleviating stress, both which can be positively impacted by exercise.


Wow, there are over 50 known neurotransmitters, and I’ve just written short bios on eight of them. Notice any similarities between their functions? Besides acting in concert with one another, many of these chemicals also serve dual functions as hormones, which get released as the body responds to external stimuli.

Acetylcholine – movement, memory, neuron communication

Dopamine – movement, memory, information flow to higher levels of the brain, “feel good”

Epinephrine aka Adrenaline – “fight or flight”

Norepinephrine – memory, neuron communication, alertness, focus

Melatonin – circadian rhythms

Serotonin – “feel good”, calming, appetite, mood, transmission of nerve impulses

Endorphin – “feel good”, pain killer, stress reliever, positive feelings

Cortisol – memory, learning, “fight or flight”

So what can you do to keep your neurons firing at their peak? Well, it’s no different then what you can do to keep your overall body performing at its peak. Stay tuned for the next post, Food for Thought.

By the way, resources for my posts on neurotransmitters include web pages, which are usually referenced in the particular post, and the books by Sprenger and Jensen listed in the column to the right.

[Sometime in 2009 I accidentally deleted the lengthy list of books on the right. Sufficiently bummed about it, I have yet to attempt a redo. The Sprenger and Jensen books referred to above are: How to Teach so Students Remember (Sprenger), Learning & Memory: The Brain in Action (Sprenger), and Teaching with the brain in mind (Jensen).]