The Scientific Chronicles – Dream decoded

“Dreaming is an act of pure imagination, attesting in all men a creative power, which if it were available in waking, would make every man a Dante or Shakespeare” – Frederic Henry Hedge

The Scientific Chronicles – Dream decoded

Illustration by Meagan RyanRecently a friend loaned me ‘The Sandman Chronicles’. For the uninitiated, this graphic series authored by Neil Gaiman is a wonderful work in giving a human like interpretation of ‘Dream’. It opens with dream’s capture and imprisonment by a group of men and evolves into a fantastical tale of his past and present adventures. But outside the fictional world, scientists have done a lot of research to ‘capture’ the elusive concept of the dream.

 

For a long period of time, dreaming has only been explained in psychological terms. In his magnum opus, Sigmund Freud explained dreams as mostly repressed urges (which he expected to be primarily animalistic and sexual in nature) guided by a conflict between the id and the ego explaining the general negative and nightmarish quality of the dream. Image source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/67/Une_le%C3%A7on_clinique_%C3%A0_la_Salp%C3%AAtri%C3%A8re.jpgHis pupil, Carl Jung however, saw dreaming as a way to connect the mind to the subconscious. According to him, dreams were actually SOS signals sent by the mind to help deal with a current stressful situation in the dreamer’s life. This need to interpret the archaic messages in dreams thus led to a lot of interest in ascribing tarot-like meanings to many dream symbols.

Scientific research has now refuted most of these prophetic concepts surrounding dreaming though. One of the greatest breakthroughs in explaining the dream content and nature was the discovery of REM sleep in 1952. Dreaming is mostly associated with the REM sleep cycle that is characterized by selective activation and deactivation of certain brain networks. For example, it has been found that the occipito-temporal cortex and the amygdala are active during REM sleep. The occipito-temporal lobe is associated with the vision cycle and auditory processing whereas the amygdala is the emotional powerhouse of a person, which explains why dreams are a visual, auditory, and highly emotional experience.

Scientists have further explained the bizarre imagery of the dream narrative to be due to the specific deactivation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) in the brain, which is involved in mental functions like cognition and memory. Another mystery about dreaming is the inability to remember the dream upon awakening. A meta-analysis of positron emission tomographic (PET) studies found that reduced activity of frontal and parietal cortexes of the brain is linked to the fragmented recall of dream elements. Jeffrey Sutton has also recently linked an increase in acetylcholine levels in the brain during REM sleep as being responsible for this memory consolidation implicating a neurochemical basis in the dreaming scenario. Image source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d7/Edwin_Landseer_-_Scene_from_A_Midsummer_Night's_Dream._Titania_and_Bottom_-_Google_Art_Project.jpgAccording to him there is a hubbub of brain network activity associated with incongruous emotional, visual and perceptual cues occurring during dreaming. Humans try to make sense of it all by combining these cues together to make one complete story which is what makes dreams so bizarre. Sutton believes that the dream narrative is a side effect of the chemical changes occurring during REM sleep as the same change is associated with learning and consolidating memories.

But not all dreams are delusional. There is one particular type of dream where one seems to be in control of the dream content and is able to recall it vividly upon awakening – the lucid dream. Think of the movie Inception! In fact, there is an entire industry out there manufacturing everything from pills to apps in helping people discipline the art of lucid dreaming. Image Source: https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3914/14872889829_9b4535629f_b.jpgBe it a delusion or a reality, numerous instances are out there where dreaming has helped inspire new songs, movies, inventions, and scientific discoveries (the structure of DNA came to James Watson in a dream!).

So, what’s really the difference between an idea and a dream? Can the state of somnolence associated with the latter be used as a primal distinction from the former? Scientists presently are determined more than ever to take dream research to the next level by defining ‘dream genes’ that govern this process. Insight into the field of dreams will not only help us to understand sleep and brain physiology but will also garner more avenues to treat psychological and sleep disorders. I, for one, can’t wait for a course in oneirology where the ability to doze off in class might actually be an absolute requirement, highly appreciated by the professor!


Peer edited by Laura Taylor
Illustrated by Meagan Ryan

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Biology and Physics Meet in the Middle

Scientists thrive on “aha” moments— breakthroughs in knowledge that come from careful planning or perhaps fortuitous luck. For a team of researchers led by Josh Lawrimore, a fourth-year graduate student in Kerry Bloom’s lab at UNC, their “aha” moment came about by approaching their research question in a new way.

Josh’s research is focused on what happens to a chromosome—a long molecule of DNA wrapped around proteins—when a parent cell divides into two daughter cells. To study chromosomes, the Bloom lab uses baker’s yeast as an experimental model. The centromere region in yeast cells has been well-studied, and their chromosomes are similar in structure to human chromosomes. Amazingly, through working with this simple organism, Josh has solved a long-standing mystery in the field of cell biology.

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Four Bad Graphs, and How to be a Better “Citizen Statistician”

Statistics. Ugh. Why force-feed such a dreary topic to countless innocent students across the globe? Well, statistics is actually an outrageously important field of study. People make graphs to summarize statistical results (it’s more useful to look at a graph than a big spreadsheet full of numbers). These graphs can inform important decisions made by voters, politicians, business owners, land managers, and others. Continue reading

Matters of the Heart

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweethearts_(candy)Valentine’s Day is today and it’s incredibly common to see public places decorated with paper hearts and store shelves packed with heart-shaped candy. Hearts are a universal representation of love, but don’t let their simple facade fool you – everyone’s favorite cardiac organ has an interesting history and some amazing scientific features!

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Tom Brady has been Unjustly Denied Tomatoes

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brady tomoatoAs an avid New York sports fan, I love a good Tom Brady controversy. Many of these controversies are ridiculous and take up too much time during actual news broadcasts (read: deflategate), but other Brady controversies should be taken seriously, including each and every ridiculous haircut he sports. (Remember the Hugh Grant phase?) The latest controversy surrounding Tom Brady combines 2 of my favorite things: ridiculous Tom Brady stories and science.

Let’s talk about the Tom Brady diet. On January 4th the Boston Globe ran a piece on the chef who decides what Tom Brady eats. Chef Allen Campbell chooses a plant-based, organic, GMO-free, sugar-free, caffeine-free, flour-free, pepper-free, mushroom-free, tomato-free, and dairy-free diet for the Brady family. In this article, Campbell makes so many scientifically unsound statements to defend this diet, but one of his statements stood out to me:

“I’m very cautious about tomatoes. They cause inflammation”.

As an immunologist, I feel the overwhelming need to address the frivolous use of the word inflammation. Inflammation is a biological process, which occurs when immune cells migrate to a specific tissue in response to a harmful stimulus, such as an infection or physical injury. This inflammatory response can kill invading pathogens and repair tissue injuries. The inflammatory response elicited by a bacterial infection is the same inflammatory response elicited during a physical injury, like when you are sacked by Justin Tuck in your own end zone on the first play of the Super Bowl.

During an inflammatory response, immune cells are directed to the site of infection or injury by proteins called pro-inflammatory cytokines. Sometimes pro-inflammatory cytokines signal in the absence of a harmful stimulus, which can cause chronic inflammation and autoimmune disease. However, and I cannot stress this enough, tomatoes do not cause chronic inflammation. In fact, the consumption of tomato products has actually been linked to a decrease in chronic inflammation.

Extracts from tomatoes, and even tomato ketchup, decrease pro-inflammatory cytokine production and immune cell migration, which decreases inflammation. Many researchers link the anti-inflammatory effects of tomatoes to a compound called lycopene. In a rodent model, lycopene extracts reduced oxidative compounds that contribute to chronic inflammation associated with gastric ulcers. Furthermore, studies in humans show the addition of tomato juice to people’s diets actually reduces markers of systemic inflammation associated with obesity. The observation that this tomato-based compound decreases inflammation has lead researchers to use derivatives of these compounds to control inflammation through the modification of a key pro-inflammatory pathway, known as the NF-kB pathway. Lycopene derivatives modify essential molecules in this pathway and block the ability of the NF-kB pathway to produce pro-inflammatory cytokines. All of this data supports the exact opposite of what Campbell claims.

While researching for this post I could not find any peer-reviewed, scientific study to back-up the claim that tomatoes cause inflammation. Now, I am by no means suggesting tomatoes will cure all chronic inflammatory diseases, but there is certainly no reason to forego tomato consumption for fear of inflammation. Unfortunately, Brady’s health guru fails to consult scientific facts, and has unnecessarily denied this man/god tomatoes. Dieting can be difficult, and I give Brady credit for sticking to such a stringent diet. I think we can all agree that he deserves a cheat day; I just hope it’s not during the playoffs again.


Peer edited by Deirdre Sackett

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