Coconut oil: A brain cell defender against Alzheimer’s disease protein #SfN14

Poster: Treatment of neurons with coconut oil and constituent fatty acids attenuates the effects of amyloid beta in vitro

When someone finds out that I study the neurobiology of Alzheimer’s disease, all too often I get asked the heartbreaking question – ‘Is there a cure?’ Currently, there is no cure. Even within the field of Alzheimer research, there is a great deal of debate around whether or not there will ever be a cure for this fatal neurodegenerative disease that ravishes the brain leaving it inflamed and full of holes filled with gloopy clumps of protein where healthy neurons once lived. With such a dire prognosis, and a complete lack of effective treatment options, any new research – particularly research involving executable steps towards prevention (e.g. dietary supplements) – shines brightly with hope.

Coconut oil boasts a wide range of health and beauty benefits: from its antibacterial properties, to being an excellent hair conditioner. Recently, this tropical oil has popped up on researchers’ radar when stories told by the family members of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease emerged. Many reported that eating coconut oil improved the memory and mood of their loved-ones, even bringing back their all-but-lost personalities. While these accounts are anecdotal and there is limited evidence supporting the idea that adding coconut oil to your diet could significantly impact the course of the disease, theories behind the potential neurobiological mechanisms at work are being investigated.

In Alzheimer’s disease, aka Type 3 diabetes, neurons lose their ability to effectively use the brain’s main source of energy – glucose. When the brain cannot run on glucose, an alternative energy sources known as ketone bodies are employed. Coconut oil is made up of a high percentage of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), or fatty acids, that can be rapidly broken down by the liver into ketone bodies. These small molecules can easily cross the blood-brain barrier and help make an easy neuron snack.

Clinical trials using a special formulation of MCTs have reported significant improvements in Alzheimer patients after a few months of treatment. However, the MCTs used in the study are expensive and not widely available. Thus, there has been interest in investigating the effectiveness of coconut oil, which also contains a high percentage of MCTs, but can be found on the shelves of local grocery stores for a price that will make your wallet happy.

In Alzheimer’s disease, Aβ protein clumps up in the brain forming plaques, a hallmark of the disease, and unleashes a cascade of toxic effects on neurons. Recently, researchers at the Memorial University of Newfoundland found that treating neurons grown in the lab with coconut oil prevented the harmful effects of Aβ on the cells. When they broke the coconut oil down into some of its basic components, they found that the complete, unaltered oil, rather than just some of the fatty acid components, was more effective at protecting the cells. Additionally, cell survival increased the longer the coconut oil was on the neurons before exposure to the Aβ protein.

What does this all mean for people trying to prevent Alzheimer’s disease? Obviously a cell grown in a laboratory dish being protected is very different from what is occurring in a human brain, but this important work creates a foundation for uncovering the mechanisms behind the actions of coconut oil on neurons. New data filtering out of an ongoing clinical trial might suggest that coconut oil is not all that effective for patients with AD. But, after seeing that the longer the neurons in cultures were treated with coconut oil, the better they faired against the toxic protein, it may mean that future studies should target people years before disease development. This may be especially important for middle age adults to begin a regiment, since imaging studies have shown that people develop amyloid plaques in the brain 10-20 years prior to signs of cognitive problems associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Ultimately, adding coconut oil to your diet may be beneficial but I don’t want to portray false hope. The jury is still out and more research needs to be done. If you are thinking about adding it into your diet, make sure you use cold-pressed coconut oil. Animal studies have shown that using hydrogenated coconut oil could be responsible for deleterious effects on the hippocampus. And if you have any tasty recipes let me know in the comments below! If I take nothing else away from the neuroscience meeting this year, it will be that coconut oil I are going to become better acquainted.

Photo credit: Phu Thinh Co (via Flickr)

Tips and Tricks: Poster Presenting #SfN14

#SfN14
Poster presenting at #SfN14 #DC

With 5 Society for Neuroscience meetings under my belt, I like to think that I’ve picked up a few quality poster presentation tricks over the years. Here is my list of protips to help make your session a wild success.

Protip #1: Practice two versions of your poster presentation: a 50¢ tour and a nickel tour. Some of the nice people that show up to your poster will want the full rundown. But for those that appear in front of you haggard, with a glazed-over look in their eyes (the telltale signs of SfN-itis: too many posters, too little time), it is nice to have an abbreviated  synopsis of your work ready. If you feel like you would benefit from a few extra practice runs before showtime, check out the Speaker Ready Room located in the Washington Convention Center, room 209C. It’s open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, November 14, through Wednesday, November 19 and can help you iron out your performance and calm pre-poster jitters.

Protip #2: Remember that you make a better door than a window. Don’t hide all your hard work by standing directly in front of poster. Instead, position yourself nearby, off to the side of  your poster, allowing people to take in all of your impressive work.

Protip #3: Don’t pull a Lance Burton and miraculously vanish from your poster area, especially during your assigned presentation hour. Posters are a terrific way to strike up scientific conversations and get suggestions on your work, so don’t be M.I.A. Make sure to grab a presenter pin (so everyone knows you’re the real deal!) and a “Will return by _____” sign to hang on your poster board for when nature calls – These are 4-hour sessions people, it’s bound to happen!

Protip #4:  Badgering poster goers is no way to make friends. Politely let someone know that you are available for questions and then give them some space. If they engage you, offer to take them through your poster. On the flip side, don’t ignore someone, especially if they look like they might have a question. It’s a fine line to walk but can be mastered through practice.

Protip #5: And finally, don’t flirt with the kind, unsuspecting people that come to read your poster. Poster goer: “I’d like to know…” Presenter: “What my number is?” Remember we are mixing science ideas, not cocktails. Keep it classy.

I hope you have a great poster session this meeting and find some time to get out and enjoy Washington DC!

National Geographic Museum

Unlocking Creativity in the Brain

jazzWhat do elite jazz musicians and freestyle rap artists have in common? Both generate remarkably similar brain activation patterns during improvisations, providing neuroscientists with insight into intricacies of the creative mind.

Read more about these studies, and others, in my latest piece with the Society for Neuroscience’s Brain Facts.orghere!

Photo credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões (via Flickr)

Oxytocin: Bonding, Birth, and Trust

Heralded in the media as a molecular love guru, oxytocin has been publicized as the “hug hormone” and the “cuddle chemical” because of it’s reported roles in promoting positive social virtues like trust, empathy, intimacy, and generosity. While oxytocin may have a hand in these behaviors, the idea that this ancient molecule, originally discovered for it’s ability to safely induce labor, is the one-and-only factor affecting these higher order social attributes has become a widely accepted misconception.

Read more in my latest Research and Discoveries piece with the Society for Neuroscience’s Brain Facts.org, here!

Photo credit: Valerie Everett (via Flickr)

No Laughing (Gray) Matter: Laughter, the Brain, and Evolution

LaughEver wonder why we laugh?

In a quest to discover the brain’s “funny bone”, scientists have studied damaged brains and tickled rats, apes, and babies.

Read more and hear the laughter experts weigh in at my latest piece with the Society for Neuroscience’s Brain Facts.org, here!

Photo credit: ECohen (via Flickr)

The genius of cookie sales outside of legal marijuana shops

Thirteen-year old, Girl Scout Danielle Lei is making bank on cookie sales by setting up shop outside of a legal marijuana dispensary in San Francisco. Selling an astounding 117 boxes of cookies in 2 hours, Danielle and her mother had to restock supplies after just 45 minutes! While the Colorado Girl Scouts organization is frowning on this practice – issuing a statement last month effectively banning sales outside of pot shops – this mother-daughter duo’s entrepreneurial gumption is capitalizing on an effective business strategy that is backed up by scientific research on the munchies.

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Why We Are Not Getting Enough Sleep

Originally published at Scientific American MIND

Glorious, refreshing sleep is eluding the majority of Americans. According to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2013 International Bedroom Poll 56 percent of people between the ages of 25 and 55 get an insufficient amount of sleep on workdays. On non-workdays individuals are then more likely to oversleep. They spend an additional 45 minutes catching Z’s in an attempt to compensate for accrued workweek sleep debt. Why are we constantly playing sleep-catch up during free time?

As a society we are socially jet lagged. Social jet lag is the difference betweensleep patterns on work days and free days. These inconsistent sleeping habits result in sleep loss that is reminiscent of flying west across several time zones every Friday evening and traveling back East come Monday morning. The pattern reveals a critical disparity between society-imposed obligations, like work and family commitments, and our innate biological clock. Social jet lag might not sound like a big deal. What’s an hour or two of sleep lost here and there? But the chronic misalignment between our social and biological clocks is wreaking havoc on our health.

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Book Review: The Genius of Dogs

The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods
The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods

It’s no secret to those close to me that I’m completely crazy-for-coco-puffs in love with my 3 year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Sgt. Pepper.

Every now and then my cuddlebug does something goofy and I’m reminded of his tangerine-sized brain. Just the other day he began barking ferociously out the window at a neighbors golden retriever. Considering his pint-sized stature, these tough-guy antics seem ridiculous, but he honestly thinks he’s the biggest, toughest dude around.

Other times Sarge proves be a furry little genius in his own right. He knows the names of all his toys, can recognize animals on a muted television screen, and seems to know when he is doing something naughty.

So along with other dog owners, I have wondered whether my fur child is the Albert Einstein of dogs or am I wearing the rose-colored glasses of parenthood? How does Sarge’s canine mind work?

New York Times Bestseller, The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think, is a fantastic read that tackles many of the grand mysteries behind canine intelligence. Brian Hare, Ph.D. – head of the Center for Dog Cognition at Duke University – and award-winning journalist Vanessa Woods offer remarkable insight into not only the minds of man’s most beloved companions but perspective on our own human intelligence.

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A secret to unlocking happiness? Practice gratitude.

My Buddha Doodles Gratitude Journal by Molly Hahn (Mollycules)! I love the art in this journal and there is plenty of space provided to write down positive experiences from each day.

Friends & family, puppies, Pittsburghese, rainy summer evenings, hugs, books, the brain…

Lots of things make me happy – but few things feel as wonderful as showing appreciation for the kindness, love, or courtesy extended by another person.

Gratitude, originating from the Latin word gratus meaning ‘thankful’, is a powerful moral sentiment that psychologists have shown significantly influences overall happiness.  The simple act of being thankful does more than extend good will towards the thankee, it provides mental, social, and physical benefits for the thanker.

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New Year, New Scoop!

Hello Synaptic Scoopers! It’s almost time to ring in the new year! I have a number of exciting things in store for 2014 including: guest posts, book reviews, a new blog look, collaborations, and of course more neuroscience scoop!

Until then, if the mood strikes you, check out these posts I’ve recently written over at BeingHuman.org:

The New Science of Cuffing Season

Gene expression modifies monogamy

Too Old for Santa Claus?

How age affects imagination

concert

Higher Status, Better Health

Social status alters gene expression

Have a very Happy New Year!