Category Archives: Health & Medicine

Anxiety on the brain

A jack-in-the-box. Photo from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

I am an anxious person by nature. Crowds make me anxious. Driving at night makes me anxious. Loud noises in general, but shouting in particular, make me anxious — even if the shouting is not directed at me. But why? What makes me react to crowds this way, while others are not bothered in the least by crowds or loud noises?

There are probably lots of reasons. And, as with anything as complicated as the human brain, most of the reasons are probably intertwined with each other.

My therapist tells me anxiety is seeded in fear. I was recently talking with Koraly Pérez-Edgar, an associate professor of psychology here at Penn State, for last week’s episode of the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Distillations podcast. She told me that shy people often have an overactive amygdala, but you can listen to our conversation here as part of a segment titled “Inside the brain.”

Fear, shyness, overactive amygdala. Hmm.

Pérez-Edgar explained that the limbic system is what shapes your response to threat and novelty in the environment. And at the center of the limbic system is the amygdala. The amygdala is known to be the seat of emotion and your fight-or-flight reaction. When stimulated, it triggers your nervous system to momentarily freeze, assess the situation (likely quicker than you have time to process it), and then either stay put and defend or run away — the basic survival instinct.

So somehow, my amygdala has decided that nighttime driving and shouting are reasons for me to run away. While I am not a shy person, as the people Pérez-Edgar studies are, many of the things she described match my gut reactions. Perhaps I have an overactive amygdala after all.

I also discovered during our conversation that the children’s toy the jack-in-the-box can be a terrifying experience for many babies who turn out to be shy and have an overly sensitive amygdala.

“A lot of babies, they giggle, they laugh, they think it’s funny,” Pérez-Edgar said of the jack-in-the-box. “But these [shy] babies are terrified. They’re crying, they arch their back, they move their arms back around, their system has just said DANGER.”

As she described these reactions to me, I thought about a jack-in-the-box and how unappealing that experience seems to me, as an adult.

Immediately after we were done talking, I texted my mom, wanting to know if I hated jack-in-the-boxes when I was a baby. She didn’t remember. How can you not remember your first-born’s every experience?? My boyfriend pointed out that the jack-in-the-box was not really a popular toy when we were growing up. He insists on being the reality check in my life.

In any case, a baby’s overactive amygdala is likely linked to either his genes or his environment — in utero, during early development, or both. Or both his genes and environment influenced the amygdala.

Do I have an overactive amygdala? And if I do, why? It’s probably not worth my time to figure out right now. Meanwhile, I’ll keep practicing yoga to help keep my anxiety in check.

Penn State Universal

It seems that no matter where you are or what happens Penn State somehow figures in the mix.

Last September I was in an automobile accident on the Pa. turnpike.  Fascinating as it was to watch the firemen disassemble my car to remove me, I could have easily passed on the experience.  I ended up with a rod in my left leg and plates and screws in my left arm.  So call me bionic.  From that point I thought it would simply be a matter of waiting the 8 to 10 weeks until I could stand on my leg and then I’d be fine.  I opted to spend the time in a nursing facility in Philadelphia connected to a major hospital where my brother-in-law is a doctor on staff.  I figured my sister and nieces and nephew were nearby and they could come visit.

Unfortunately things suddenly took a turn for the worse and it was a very good thing that the nursing facility was on the campus of a hospital.  My leg, bruised and compressed during the accident, was filled with blood and flesh-eating bacteria I don’t really remember a great deal about the time immediately after this and I wasn’t aware of how ill I was until a resident told me one evening about a month later.  He said something about the necrotizing fasciitis and I just looked at him.  He didn’t realize that I hadn’t known.

I didn’t meet my surgeon until after the initial surgery.  During the course of the nearly six months I was in the hospital, nursing facility or physical rehabilitation facility, I had many visits with the man.  Turns out he was a Penn State Hershey Medical School graduate.

If the med school is still training and putting out doctors like him, then I suggest people go out and find a Hershey Medical School graduate.  Granted, he has an internship, residency and fellowships at other medical centers under his belt, but my feeling is that the medical school probably set him on the path he’s taken.

And he is a good doctor.  For one, I’m not dead.  Necrotizing fasciitis is frequently deadly.  I also still have two legs.  While this may seem flip, it is the reality of the disease.  Amputations are often necessary to save lives.  During my hospitalization, I had about 15 surgeries to remove infected tissue and two surgeries to skin graft the wound sites.

He also arranged for 30 dives in a hyperbaric chamber, a standard treatment, when available, for necrotizing fasciitis and other large wounds.  Spending two hours a day at 2.4 atmospheres was a snap.  I just lay in a giant gerbil-like habitat tube and watched TV.  But the increased oxygen in my blood improved healing and also killed any anaerobic bacteria still left after the antibiotics.

He also acted collaboratively with infectious disease doctors, orthopedists, nutritionists and others.  I was bane of the infectious disease doctors because I’m apparently allergic to most antibiotics. While I endured six weeks of rashes and hives, he was always looking for ways to make things easier for me even if it made it more difficult for him.

But the most important thing of all was that he talked to me.  Busy as he was, seeing patients, traveling to present papers at conferences and other duties, he had time to talk to me, or to do minor surgeries in my room.  And most important of all, when he spoke to me, he looked me in the eyes and his hand often reached out and touched me.  The personal touch, something I’m thinking he probably developed as a med student at Penn State’s College of Medicine.

A Banner Weekend for Penn State Research

At the AAAS annual meeting last weekend I learned a lot, such as:

  • How our preconceptions of viruses as nasty things may have thwarted our knowledge of the long list of positive interactions humans have with these microbes.
  • How evolution changed us from furry creatures into lean, mean, skin-covered, sweating machines.
  • And how we can now take pictures and make movies of atoms. Actual atoms.
Dr. Jablonski addresses media questions at AAAS news briefing.

One thing I did not learn is that I am not a great photographer. I have known that for a long time. In fact, if you couple my lack of photographic skills with my out-of-focus iPhone camera, the pictures of the atom have finer resolutions and were much clearer.

But I tried.

Continue reading A Banner Weekend for Penn State Research

Tackling concussions

woman fitting EEG cap on volunteer
Research and services coordinator Katie Finelli fits a test subject with an EEG cap to help determine brain structure and function.

Concussions are scary and yet fairly common. My brother and I both experienced concussions before turning 18 — and given the numbers I’ve found, we are not an unusual family (at least not when it comes to head injuries). The CDC estimates that nearly 4 million concussions occur in the United States every year. And the NIH says that of those 4 million, about 1.5 million concussions occur in children.

This past spring Penn State formally opened the Center for Sport Concussion Research and Service. They are equipped with a virtual-reality facility as well as brain-imaging technology, including an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and an EEG (electroencephalograph).

The new center has two main goals: to advance research in sport-related concussions and to provide services to local collegiate and child athletes by performing baseline assessments, which can help diagnose a concussion.

While working on an article for the Nov. 24 edition of the Beaver Stadium Pictorial football program, I learned that many athletic leagues are now requiring a doctor to sign off before a player is allowed back on the field after he or she sustains any head injury. This is not to say that 10 years ago, when my brother and I were in high school, concussions weren’t taken as seriously — but the importance of giving a traumatic brain injury enough time to heal is better understood now.

This understanding is in part due to the research that Sam Slobounov and Wayne Sebastianelli have been enmeshed in for many years. Slobounov is the director of the Center, as well as a professor of kinesiology and of orthopedics and medical rehabilitation. Sebastianelli is the principal investigator of the Center, and also serves as the director of athletic medicine and team physician for the Nittany Lions.

In a study published last December, Slobounov and colleagues reported that testing athletes for concussions may induce mental fatigue, whether or not the subject has a head injury. The results of the study advocate for baseline testing, something that the Center is providing for local athletes.

“Testing for a long period of time can induce fatigue,” Slobounov told me. “But at the same time, fatigue is a symptom of concussion. How do you rule out fatigue if you get fatigued while taking the test?”

As well as learning how quickly an athlete may become mentally fatigued, baseline testing includes gathering images of the brain so that a physician can compare the images pre- and post-concussion. The physician can then make an assessment of the injury and create a concussion management plan. This helps to minimize the athlete’s chances of suffering permanent brain damage by returning to play to soon.

Check out the full feature this Saturday in the football program when the Nittany Lions take on the Wisconsin Badgers!

Tobacco: An unlikely lifesaver

tobacco plants in greenhouse
Tobacco plants in Medicago greenhouse. Credit: DARPA

I recently had the opportunity to visit Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, when I attended the National Association of Science Writers annual conference. There are many perks to attending the NASW conference — including meeting amazing science writers and learning about the great research going on at other universities around the country. But one of my favorite perks is the field trips!

This year as part of the field trip portion of the conference, I visited the newest facility built by Medicago Inc. with 20 or so other science writers. While I had a general idea of what I was getting into — checking out a flu vaccine plant — I was in for a treat at this super-efficient greenhouse and laboratory.

When we rolled up on our tour bus, we were quickly escorted into a conference room where I swear a version of the cast of The Big Bang Theory awaited us. Everyone was friendly and seemingly eager to tell us all about what they do. And no wonder. They’re pretty much going to save the world.

Medicago — rhymes with Chicago — was basically given a challenge by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency): create and perfect a process to produce 10 million doses of a pandemic influenza vaccine. Oh wait, and not just that — the process needs to take no more than a month.

My new Medicago friends rose to the challenge.

The most common way to develop a flu vaccine is to incubate the virus in a fertilized chicken egg. Medicago is using tobacco plants. The plants can be created more quickly and the virus incubation time in the tobacco plant is less than in the egg.

Medicago succeeded, and received a $21 million dollar grant from DARPA. So should the nation face a flu pandemic anytime soon, DARPA will call on them to produce these vaccines, stat.

We got a tour of their very new facilities — they were completed about a year ago — and saw the greenhouse and the equipment used to infiltrate the tobacco plants with the virus.

I might have been exaggerating a bit when I said Medicago is going to save the world, but their technology is pretty neat. And I think it’s awesome that we can do something healthy and possibly even life-saving with tobacco.

What will researchers come up with next?