How acid warps your thoughts and feelings

From Cosmos Magazine, January 27, 2017 (Image: Mesaj via Flickr)

Eight decades since Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann first cooked up the psychedelic drug lysergic acid diethylamide – LSD or “acid” – and half a century on from its heyday during the 1960s counterculture, how LSD messes with our brain is still little understood.

But two new studies published today help to reveal those brain regions affected and neurochemical receptors responsible for LSD’s mind-altering effects. Read more… 

How microbes affect you from brain to bowel

From Cosmos Magazine, September 5-9, 2016. (Photo: Lactobacillus casei by AJC1 via Flickr)

Not a day goes by without some new study proclaiming the importance of our microbes to our health. It’s hard to keep up, and hard to sort the wheat from the chaff, the mildly interesting association from the water-tight causal link. I recently wrote a five part series that looks at the current state of microbiota research – what evidence is solid, and what needs further investigation.

Microbes and you: a partnership millions of years old

We are not alone. Our bodies are teeming metropolises of microscopic life – and the microbes that call us home influence everything from bowel to brain.

Over the past decade, technological advances in the lab have allowed us to take a census of our microbial entourage – known as the microbiota – like never before. Instead of seeing only the small fraction of microbes from our skin or poo that blossom on a petri dish, we can now blend, extract and read the genetic essence – the DNA – of all microbes, called the microbiome, to get a better idea of who’s there.

The picture that has emerged is one of staggering complexity. Read more…

How bugs in your gut can make you fat (or thin)

Tinkering with gut microbes causes more than a tummy ache. They can wring more calories from food and boost fat cell production – all from day one.

By far the majority of our companion microbes, weighing an impressive 1.5 kilograms and containing more than 1,000 species, reside in our gut, mostly in the large intestine.

As soon as a baby is born – and perhaps even before – microbes move in. Many are seeded from bacteria in the mother’s birth canal if it’s a vaginal birth or from her skin if it’s a caesarean birth. Read more…

Microbe tenants help – and hinder – your immune system

Obesity isn’t the only condition linked to imbalanced gut microflora. A host of autoimmune and inflammatory conditions – inflammatory bowel disease, coeliac disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus – are also associated with changes to gut microbial ecosystems.

(Indeed, obesity is often described as an inflammatory condition for the widespread immune reaction that accompanies excess weight.)

Connecting the dots between altered gut microbes and disease is a lively area of research. Scientists are working on the ‘chicken or egg’ problem: does disrupting the gut microflora cause the disease, or does having the disease lead to changes in gut microflora?

In many cases, it is likely that a complex interplay between genetics and environmental triggers – including the microbes in our guts – is involved. Read more…

Mood, mind and memory – can gut bacteria meddle with the brain?

The microbes in your gut may be tiny, but their influence appears to extend as far as the brain, affecting mental health, stress levels, memory and cognitive abilities. Yet many of the most compelling results illustrating the microbiota-gut-brain axis, as it has become known, have only been seen in animals.

The potential for gut microbes to affect mood is probably best illustrated by an experiment conducted at McMaster University in Canada. Mice devoid of a microbiota were effectively given ‘personality make-overs’ via poo transplants. Timid mice became more brazen, and once daring mice retreated into shyness, taking on the anxiety profiles of their donors.

Human-to-rodent poo transplants also work. Read more…

Bugs as drugs – medicine’s next frontier

Microbiome research is providing tantalising clues about how we might change our microbiota to improve our health. But translating findings from the lab into clinical treatments is a slow and arduous process.

The most dramatic illustration of how our microbiota can be used in the clinic is the case of the poo transplant, also known as faecal microbiota transplantation. Read more…


Learning during amnesia, probing our moral compass and brain apps for kids

(Image credit: Neil Conway via Flickr)
(Image credit: Neil Conway via Flickr)

Few areas of science are better equipped to delve into the mysteries of what it means to be human than neuroscience. With techniques such as fMRI illuminating the inner workings of our brain and billions of dollars being invested to map each neuron in our head, the field is blossoming. But joining the dots between brain activity and behaviour is still a challenge.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been writing some pieces for the Monash Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences. Here are some of the questions they’d like to answer:


Brain of the beholder: The neuroscience of beauty

Picasso's 'Girl before a mirror' (Photo credit: Nathan Laurell via Flickr)
Picasso’s ‘Girl before a mirror’ (Photo credit: Nathan Laurell via Flickr)

What is beauty? Is there an objective way of defining what it is that makes something beautiful, or is beauty — as the old cliché goes — in the eye of the beholder? These questions were, for centuries, the domain of philosophers and artists. Evolutionary biologists since Darwin have also speculated on the question of whether there are universal features of beauty that hold true for different species.

But it’s only been very recently that neurobiologists have stepped into the fray. With developments in brain imaging techniques, we can now start to ask, not only what do you find beautiful, but also, what’s actually going on in your brain when you lay eyes on a beautiful person, or a stunning landscape painting, or when you hear a spine-tingling piece of  music?

I was joined on Up Close recently by a pioneer in the field of neuroesthetics, Professor Semir Zeki,  Professor of neuroesthetics in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at University College London. Check out the interview here.


Brains at risk: The curious link between strokes and Alzheimer’s disease

(Credit: Institute Douglas via Flickr)
(Credit: Institute Douglas via Flickr)

As we head into old age, our chances of suffering from a range of serious, life-altering conditions increases. Among the most concerning are those that affect our brain — conditions like stroke and Alzheimer’s disease that can erode the very essence of who we are. On the surface, these two conditions are very different — Alzheimer’s disease creeps up on people over many years, whereas strokes occur very suddenly, seemingly coming out of nowhere to cause what can be irreparable damage if they aren’t treated quickly.

I was recently joined on Up Close by a world-renowned neurologist who has been investigating an intriguing link between these two quite different neurological conditions. Professor Vladimir Hachinski has been a pioneer in stroke care and prevention over the years. He is Professor of Neurology and Epidemiology at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

Check out the podcast here.



Why does alcohol make some people violent?

Alcohol-fuelled violence has been getting a lot of media attention here in Australia. Just yesterday, the state government of New South Wales passed legislation to try to address the problem. The new laws will ensure mandatory 8-year prison terms for anyone convicted of fatally punching someone under the influence of alcohol or drugs (the so-called ‘one-punch law’) and implementation of bar and club lock-outs in specific districts in Sydney.

The idea behind mandatory sentencing is obviously that it will act as some kind of deterrent for people amped up on booze. But research into what’s going on in the minds of people who are prone to alcohol-fuelled violence — and it’s far from everyone — suggests that taking stock of the situation and weighing the consequences is far from easy for these people.

It turns out that subtle differences in the way that our brains are wired (due to both genetics and early life experiences) are part of the explanation. But personality and social norms can also play a role. I wrote an article for ABC Health & Wellbeing on the science behind why some people, and not others, are prone to lashing out when their blood alcohol level climbs. Check it out here.

Do sperm have a use by date?

Eggs get old. This is old news and it’s why many an eyebrow is raised at the idea of a woman leaving childbearing to the post-35-years ‘danger zone’ of advanced maternal age. But ageing isn’t just something that affects a woman and her eggs. Men may be able to keep churning out sperm well into their dotage, but research is revealing that quality can suffer. As a man ages, the number of new — or ‘de novo‘ — mutations introduced into his sperm increases. The result is what’s known as the paternal age effect, where certain conditions, such as autism and schizophrenia, are more common in children of older men.

I wrote about men’s biological clock for ABC Health & Wellbeing last week. Check it out here.