February 12, 2014

Resilience commercialized

While watching the Winter Olympics, I was pleasantly surprised by this commercial from Proctor and Gamble.  You can view it in-line below too:


Although I don't know how successful the commercial will be for P&G (I couldn't name a P&G product and the commercial doesn't describe any), I think the commercial is an incredible public service announcement.   By promoting resilience, grit, determination, P&G may be really helping people, as is summarized in this excellent New York Times piece on resilience by the appropriately named Paul Tough.

February 06, 2014

My Child's Brain

My brain is growing.
I recently reread the excellent book Welcome to Your Child's Brain by Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt.  This book is an impressive compendium of information and evidence-based tips about child brain development.  As I watch my son grow up (now 16 months old), it's fascinating to read about the underlying processes that make it all possible.  It's also nice to hear what science has to say about child development, which mostly had the effect of reducing anxiety.

Also, I'm reminded about how rare it is to find a resource for parents that is based on science and evidence rather than the opinion of some random "expert".  My wife and I experienced this first hand when friends suggested that we read On Becoming Baby Wise for information about how to get our son to sleep through the night, which we started to implement until we learned that the lead author didn't hold a college degree and had never conducted a study of the effects of the proposed program.  Of course, it's impractical to wait to try anything until a study has been done to validate but if evidence does exist then that should be the place to start.

My one critique of Welcome to Your Child's Brain is that it is a bit technical.  I was fine with that but I spent 6 years of my life reading neuro-jargon - for the uninitiated the book is weighed down by terminology.  

In the end, parents need more resources like Welcome to Your Child's Brain that are based on facts, not speculation.  As far as I know, no organizations exist that serves as watch dogs for bad parenting advice... Perhaps, we need one?  What do you think?

December 16, 2013

Big, beautiful, bouncing... Brains.

Bounce monkey brain, bounce!
As I mentioned last time, I've become intrigued by the relationship between brain function and diet: does the brain run best on a particular set of fuels?  Does peak mental performance require some specific type of foods?  Or, can we stuff our faces with garbage and expect to have tip-top noggins?

I've started my research by examining the evolutionary context for our big brains.  Specifically, what type of dietary environment supported the evolution of our minds?  Can we learn anything from examining the paleontological record of our ancestors?

I've learned a few interesting things so far, all related to the coincident timing of certain events during the rapid encephalization, or brain growth, that culminated with the human brain.  The first that jumps out is the earliest evidence of stone tools, which roughly coincides with the appearance of the species Homo habilis around 2.3 million years ago (mya).  At the point that tool use became evident, the brains of H. habilis were roughly "the same size as that of a chimpanzee."

It was over the next ~1 million years that brain growth was most dramatic, where the 600 cc Homo brain case nearly doubled in size to ~1,100 cc in H. erectus.  Although the exact timing is still controversial, H. erectus was the first species to demonstrate the controlled use of fire, with evidence taking the form of obvious ovens by around 200 thousand years ago (kya) although some argue that cooking existed as a technology for much longer.  If we assume cooking really took off at the more recent end of the possible range, this very closely aligns with the emergence of anatomically modern humans - the oldest fossilized remains that closely resemble modern humans - and represents the other, major coincident event that seems to correspond with a major advance in the human lineage.

These examples of critical cultural advances - tool use and control of fire - both indicate that our ancestors relied heavily on hunted or scavenged animals as a source of nutrient-dense food as animal bones marred by both tool marks and burn marks have been observed.  These facts, combined with analyses of both current and inferred hunter-gatherer diets, suggest that the eating of animals was an important factor in the development of the human brain (sorry, vegetarians).

That being said, the evidence also seems to suggest an important role for the consumption of significant plant-based food in our ancestors' diets as well: fruit, tubers, nuts, and vegetation.  Supporting an energy-hungry organ like the human brain takes a lot of raw material and energy, so it's reasonable to assume that our ancestor's ate anything they could hunt... or gather.  However, the caveat to applying this "eat what you can" or omnivore approach to our modern diets is the relatively recent emergence of agriculture on the scene ~10 kya.  The explosive growth in the availability of carbohydrates allowed by agriculture is the cause, hypothesized by Gary Taubes and others, of many of the modern maladies of civilization, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.  For the most part, I buy the argument that too many carbohydrates is likely driving the rapid rise in obesity and related comorbidities, but that is for another day.

Regarding brain function, the open question for me is this: if our brains are hungry organs and we evolved to eat anything we can, shouldn't more of everything (including carbohydrates) be better for peak brain function?  Isn't it possible that the best diet for brain function may not be the best diet for long term health?  I don't feel confident with the range of possible answers to this question, but my rough analysis of our brain evolution would seem to suggest that an emphasis on animal protein and the "gatherable" fruits, nuts, and vegetables may represent a sweet spot for brain function as well as overall health.  In future posts I hope to explore the mechanisms of brain metabolism in the context of different levels of nutrients with the hope to learn more about how the brain prefers to get it's fuel.  Perhaps the hunter-gather diet is best of brains, but I will wait for more evidence before I make the call.

December 03, 2013

Brain Food?

Brain food.
Having recently read Gary Taubes' excellent book on the obesity epidemic "Good Calories, Bad Calories", I was inspired to revisit my old habit of eating a "paleo" diet.  Although this sounds like something exotic, at the core of this nutritional approach is a low-carb, high-fat/protein philosophy that is inspired by interpretations of how our evolutionary, paleolithic ancestors may have dined: hunting meat in large quantities, supported by gathering of fruit, nuts and tubers.  I don't have the energy to go into to detail about the diet, but feel free to see Mark Sisson's introduction to the subject.

During the course of eating this way, I've become curious about the nature of the "ideal" diet for brain function.  Does the brain require certain types of fuel to function, as has been reported. Or, can the brain operate on a number of energetic substrates (ketone bodies, lactate, glucose)?  Beyond function, does the brain function optimally in the presence of particular nutrients?  Furthermore, does optimal function translate to long term health or are these outcome mutually exclusive?

These questions of nutrition and brain function will be a recurring theme here on the Happy Homunculus moving forward.  I hope to explore the evolutionary roots of our big brains and the food that may have supported our modern intelligence.  I also hope to explore the effects of food on the brain with the hope to figure out the "ideal" approach to feeding that hungry hunk of meat.

From a personal perspective, I've been eating very low carb for a few months now and have confirmed that I've been in ketosis using KetoStix testing strips (I'm a nerd).  During this time I've been as productive, if not more so, than before I started eating paleo again.  This one-subject mini-experiment certainly calls into question the need for excessive carbohydrates for normal brain function, but I'm hardly the first to question this philosophy.  Moving forward, I'm excited to learn more about how the engines of the brain function, and how to keep them running smoothly.

November 27, 2013

On the Superiority of Thanksgiving

And a search for "monkey eating turkey" results in....
While I'm moments away from solving a number of the great mysteries of consciousness, I feel it is timely that a thorough analysis of holiday strengths and weaknesses was performed. 

Via this process (which was thorough indeed, but I won't bore you with the details) I have concluded that Thanksgiving is unquestionably the superior holiday, especially as it relates to brain function.  This conclusion stems from the characteristics of the Thanksgiving holiday that I refer to as the three F's: frugality, football, and food.  Each F significantly reduces cognitive load.  In this way, Thanksgiving has the unique ability to literally rebuild the brain (that's my professional opinion).

Frugality: Oh, presents.  Christmas and similar holidays have a central element of gift-giving.  But this activity is too emotionally demanding.  How much money? Who got what? To regift or not to regift?  When one is in a state of leisure, these stressful decisions are to be eschewed.  In this regard, Thanksgiving takes the lead over all gift-focused holidays.

Football:  Oh, mindless aggression.  Football has a direct hotline to the primal, "reptilian" regions of the brain.  In this way, it spares the higher cognitive brain regions, like my favorite the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, from excessive effort.  By doing so, football provides the brain with the vacation it deserves.

Food: The brain is an organ.  It is made of protein, fat, PUFAs, MUFAs, cholesterol, etc.  Also, it is a hungry hunk of meat, consuming a reported ~20% of the body's energy (although, I haven't confirmed the calculations...).  Thus, Thanksgiving scratches the brain right where it itches.  Turkey? Boom.  Tubers? Pow.  The brain needs fuel and raw materials.  Thanksgiving gets er' done.

QED.  I think the case is closed, don't you think?  When it comes to brain happiness, and my happiness, Thanksgiving wins the ribbon.  So, I send out a thanks for Thanksgiving... A meta-thanks, if you will? Thank you, Thanksgiving.  Thank you for making my brain happy.