4 Things You Can Do to Cheer Up, According to A Neuroscientist

When we are stuck in feeling badly, the brain may be perpetuating the bad feelings through a misguided effort at a remedy, says UCLA neuroscientist Alex Korb, author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. He makes the surprising assertion that, from a neurobiological viewpoint, shame and guilt activate neural circuitry similar to that which is activated when we are proud of ourselves (the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens). He suggests that self-reproach, thus, is an attempt to activate the brain’s reward center and boost self-esteem. Similarly, he suggests, compulsive worry may be an attempt to reduce amygdaloid activity and stabilize the limbic system, the seat of emotions in the brain, by stimulating medial prefrontal cortical regions.

So how to counteract the brain’s tendency to make you feel worse in an effort to feel better? First, by cultivating gratitude, whcih activates the anterior cingulate cortex and boosts serotonin. Apparently, Korb says, you don’t even have to come up with something to be thankful for, which is sometimes not easy to do when everything seems dismal. Korb says that the act of remembering to be thankful may be enough.

Next, try and get very specific about the nature of your bad feelings. Labelling experiences activates your prefrontal cortex and reduces limbic arousal and the intensity of emotion. Labelling is apparently actively taught to FBI negotiators as a means of calming hostage-takers. It is also a central feature of mindfulness techniques.

Related to labelling is deciding about what it is that has you worked up and what you can do in response, and it should be a “good-enough” decision rather than striving for exactitude or perfection. There is an old saying that ‘the perect is the enemy of the good,’ and it appears to be true on a neurobiological level. Trying for the best draws emotional activation into the decision-making process, through ramping up ventromedial prefrontal cortex activity. In contrast, the good-enough decision activates more dorsolateral prefrontal (DLPF) areas, enhancing a sense of quiet control and increasing dopamine-based reward activity. Establishing intentions, creating goals and making decisions all recruit positive calming neural circuitry and calm the limbic system. This may be one basis for the saying that ‘We don’t just choose the things we like, we like the things we choose.’

Then there’s the value of human touch. As fMRI studies have shown, social exclusion and physical pain activate the same circuitry. On a neurobiological basis, alleviating isolation with touch stimulates the release of oxytocin and reduces activity in the amygdala, the anterior cingulate and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Source: Big Think

Chance Discovery May Lead to a Vaccine for Depression and PTSD

In 2013, Columbia University neuroscientists Rebecca Brachman and Christine Ann Denny were investigating the effects on mice of the anaesthetic ketamine, which has recently attracted attention for inducing rapid but short-lived remissions of depression in humans and is also used as an illegal recreational psychedelic, “Special K.”

They were using mice who had been stressed to see if ketamine could counter their resultant depression-like behaviors. Because their lab was cash-strapped, they planned to wait a week and reuse the same mice on another round of ketamine trials, but it didn’t work. Mice who had been administered ketamine the week before could no longer be made to exhibit any stress. It appeared that the ketamine had inoculated them against the effects of stressful experience. The investigators, rightfully skeptical of this conclusion, were able to replicate the findings in subsequent trials with mice models for PTSD as well as depression, as well as running the ketamine trial against a physiological model in which all they did was to give stress hormones. “[W]e only gave a tiny amount of the drug, and it lasted for weeks, and that’s not like anything you see with antidepressants.”

The hope, of course, is that the efficacy of the ketamine can be extended to help reduce the incidence of depression and PTSD in humans.

‘In particular, they may be of use to first-responders, emergency workers, and military personnel heading into exceptionally stressful situations.’

Source: Big Think