May 1, 2008

The Neuroscience of Spring

The signs of spring are upon us. There are pick-up games of soccer forming, frisbees flying, and campus golfers swinging. It seems all of Knox is more active and eager to soak up the sun. What these students do not know is that by enjoying the opportunities of being outdoors they are actually improving their brains!

While it may seem that taking the long route to class is just a simple way to enjoy the spring weather, you are actually doing your brain a favor. Walking is particularly good for your brain because, as opposed to running, your muscles do not use as much oxygen and glucose and with increased circulation your brain reaps the benefits.

For those of you who prefer to save your energy for an evening jog, you are also contributing to the health of your brain. In ongoing studies at the Salk institute, it has been observed that animals that run often show an increase in brain cells. Thinking about moving your muscles can strengthen them.

For those of you sunbathers who do not really want to get up and participate in some sweat inducing activities there is still hope. In a study produced by the researchers at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, it was shown that simply thinking about moving your muscles could improve muscle strength. The experimental group improved strength in their little finger by 35 percent as compared to the control group by thinking about moving their little finger five minutes a day five days a week for 12 weeks. So whether you are taking advantage of the warm weather to run around or are just thinking about it, your brain and body are profiting.

Whether you are admiring the awakening campus, trying to pick up a tan, or just absorbing the warmth of the sun, being outside this spring is affecting your brain. Special receptors in your retinas are sensitive to luminescence and send signals to the biological clock of the brain, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). It is here that your circadian rhythms, such as wake-sleep cycles, body temperature, and activity cycles, are synchronized. While these cycles continue independent of light stimulus, like any clock, the SCN needs to be “reset”. This explains why bright light provides the best recovery from jet lag.

If you are wondering just what makes you so darn happy come springtime, it is sunshine. Serotonin, the same neurotransmitter that elevates your mood in anticipation of and during a meal, is also triggered by sunlight. In fact, a study found that the lowest serotonin turnover occurred in the winter while production of it increased with duration of bright light and rose with enhanced luminosity. Knowing this, it is not surprising that bright light is a common treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also called winter depression, which is characterized by depression symptoms occurring seasonally. It is no wonder spring sunshine makes you happily migrate to the outdoors.

On another note, if you do not want to go outside to get tan, go for a run to lose some pounds, and are having trouble finding that spring sex drive, look into Bremelanotide (peptide 141). It is a cyclic hepta-peptide lactam analog of alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (alpha-MSH) that activates the melanocortin receptors MC3-R and MC4-R in the central nervous system. In plain English, that means it works as an aphrodisiac for both men and women, gives you a tan and also suppresses your appetite. Coined as the ‘barbie drug’, this peptide has not been released to the public, but is currently in phase III clinical trials. The drug was suppose to be released this year, but has yet to hit the streets. So keep a look out and maybe next year you will be able to look like you are enjoying spring even though it is still snowing in April.

Catherine Ray

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