Improving our neuroplasticity Dr Kelly Lambert TEDxBermuda

[Applause] such a wonderful experience to be here in beautiful Bermuda thanks for coming out today like most of you we don't get a lot of downtime but when I get some downtime I really love to read a mystery it seems that our brains are human brains with all of our complex circuits are uniquely designed to put the pieces of the puzzle together and to solve mysteries but one mystery that's really been troubling me lately is the mystery of why in the midst of an multibillion-dollar antidepressant industry depression rates continue to go up about 300 million people across the world today experienced depression and this isn't good we need to do better it's unacceptable makes us think that maybe there are some other suspects some other clues where we can get some information about how to come to the solution and solve this mystery of depression well one area that where we've spent a lot of time looking for clues is neuro chemistry and this makes perfect sense because our brains are swimming and neuro chemicals dopamine serotonin acetylcholine glutamate and they have a huge impact on our behaviors or emotions or thoughts so it makes perfect sense to think that we could take a pill that could change our neuro chemistry in ways that would make us feel better to be emotionally resilient but there are challenges with this because it's hard to mimic nature in that if there is an imbalance that's associated with something like depression how do we make it take a pill and change the nura chemistry in these natural ways so it's not very precise and unfortunately it doesn't help reliably help everyone who needs to who has depression so it makes us think that there are some other clues and suspects out there so being a neuroscientist when I go back to the drawing board that drawing board is a brain and I wanted to be as I tell my students let's be brain whisperers of sort of a sort and see what the what is important to the brain and what really stands out to me is how our brains seem to be designed and evolved to move our bodies around we like to think that our brains are about thinking but movement is an incredibly important behavior if we think about the cerebellum hanging off the back of our brains it contains about 80% of our brains and neurons 80% and what is the cerebellum do well there's a lot of things but it's most noted for its role in controlling our motor coordination and the areas that around the center of the brain called the striatum also involved in coordinating and facilitating our movement and in fact individuals who have Parkinson's disease or Huntington's disease have some impairment of the system and then going from the middle of our brain down to our ear is the motor cortex and it's involved in moving the specific muscles that are important for us to initiate and carry out that behavior that we want to carry out and if you look at the proportion of that coat motor cortex and what muscles the muscles that it's coordinating and controlling it's the area that controls the hand is disproportionately large it seems like nature is telling us movement is incredibly important and movement of our hands is also very important and if that's true what would happen if say we decided that we weren't going to move around as much maybe we're going to spend a lot of time sitting down in front of screens but they have some impact on our brains maybe so and it's interesting to think over the past century just how much our lifestyle has changed it's it's about a hundred years ago well over these hundred years but it's it's hard to believe that just in 1939 and the New York Times ran an article about this invention that was revealed at the World's Fair it was called the television it was really a neat thing they said but it but they said it will never be more popular than the radio because what family has time to sit in front of a TV in the evenings and not use their hands to do work Wow things have really changed over the last century and past generations when I think about my own childhood going back driving back to Talladega Alabama to see my grandparents I have vivid memories of how busy especially my grandmother was after working in the factory her downtime was spent shelling peas or shucking corn or snapping green beans on that front porch only to be followed by freezing and canning and preparing that food so that in the winter when she'd bring that food out and prepared these wonderful Sunday dinners I saw the pride on her face because now thinking back she had to bring up these memories of how the role she played in providing that food for her family and it really made me see this pride and if someone was sick in her community I remember her saying I'm from Alabama bless her heart she couldn't have her own garden so I'm going to take her these vegetables so at least she can prepare them for the winter Wow have to how things have changed I'm beginning to think that maybe when we traded in our Spears and our clubs for selfie sticks that maybe we've traded in something really important for our brain and what if our cultural contemporary ideas of prosperity in which we work really hard to make enough money to pay people to do the things our grandparents and ancestors used to do very well for themselves maybe that doesn't match our brains idea of prosperity and maybe that mismatch could lead to some contribution of psychiatric illness these high rates that we're seeing today in fact our ancestors dependence on their hands and interacting with the environment to provide the resources just to live for that day might have been the original Prozac the prehistoric prozac that perhaps we need to remember but this idea is a new Charles Darwin who is the great naturalist had wrote that he had a lot of angst when he was dealing and writing and musing about this idea of natural selection and how Kahn reversal it was and the impact it would have on his family and friends and ideas about religion and the origin of our species and he said that when he would walk around his property and there was a path called the thinking path that it would calm his nerves and he would put a rock at the gate and he would have his walking stick and when he would walk around that path he would knock that rock off to signify the effort that he had made and if it was an especially stressful day he'd put two rocks and in even more he might have a three rock walk and he'd have two rock walk three times and knocked that stock and that stone over well he wasn't just realizing that his behavior was important in regulating his emotions but he was even dosing himself and whether or not he was going to have a one walk to walk or three whelk day so this idea behavior was incredible as he saw that it was important for regulating his mental health and in the days when cake mixes came out mostly women making the cakes those days the first cake mixes had everything you needed to make the cake you just needed to pour the batter in the pan but some very smart manufacturers notice that women didn't take as much pride in their cakes if they didn't have a little skin in the game so then they took they didn't have to you but they took the egg in the water so you'd have to add the egg and the water give you a little bit more effort and people were more proud of the cake so thinking that behavior is important for a mental health and we can change our behavior and change our neuro chemistry through behavior as our ancestors have it caused me to think about a new word award I just made up behavior suta khals so we can change our nerve chemistry by taking a pill that will alter our neuro chemistry or maybe we can change our newark chemistry strategically by engaging in smart behaviors that will change it in more healthy ways well I was reading that about a hundred years ago doctors used to prescribe knitting to women in those days they described as overwrought with anxiety they didn't know why but they saw that it calmed their nerves kind of like Darwin knowing now that we know about neuroscience this makes perfect sense serotonin is increased when we are engaged in repetitive behavior and the knits knitting and making the stitches is an example of repetitive behavior as the knitter is thinking about that beautiful scarf or hat that that she or he is making that increases dopamine it's known as the pleasure neurochemical of the brain but it's mostly involved with anticipation looking forward to something and as you think about the stitches instead of the worries of the day that probably calms and reduces stress hormones and if there was one neuro chemical that probably is a culprit a suspect and a lot of the mysteries related to mental health its these stress hormones cortisol for example about 50% of everyone diagnosed with depression has high cortisol levels so anything we can do to depress that or decrease the stress hormones or an import is an important endeavor and if we're knitting and the company of friends then that may increase oxytocin and oxytocin is known as the cuddle chemical but it's important and fostering positive relationships and also probably reduces stress so here you go behavior suit achill with one activity of knitting it may be cooking or woodworking or gardening but something that's reminding the you that your physical effort where does the result of that is some reward so I'm a neuroscientist so we want to go back to the brain I can remember the drawing board here and I was fascinating fascinated to see that the area of the brain that is involved in reward that is impacted in depression lack of feeling that reward is the nucleus accumbens kind of lower in the brain and it has rich connections to that area of the brain involved in movement called the striatum and those areas have indirect and direct connections to the prefrontal cortex that's involved in our decision-making and and and planning and the more that we engage in behaviors where we can see the result of our effort those circuits are consolidating so that as we go forward for the next challenge in our life we have a little experience all capital to bring with us to remind us that what we do can make a difference we did produce that scarf we made that cake we walked around the thinking path I work with rats for a living these are my colleagues and they outsmart me all the time as a scientist we always we need evidence so all of that theorizing about our ancient humans and and ideas about depression it started to make sense but I wanted to take this to the lab a lot of friends and people who find out what I do they asked but what can you learn about our our brains our fancy smancy brains by looking at this very simplistic brain well it is true that it's small it's 2 grams compared to our about 1,400 gram brain but it has all the same parts all the same neuro chemicals and if I showed you a neuron that individual cell in a human brain versus a rat brain you wouldn't be able to tell the difference so it's a wonderful model to start with I realized that a rat is not a little human and we're not a big rat but it's a good model well some of us may be so when I was thinking about I wanted to put these rats to work I'm thinking about our this idea about work and producing products that we're proud of I needed something that the rats would work for and our rats loved fruit loops so we had to get them addicted to fruit loops and then I needed a task and I thought back to my grandmother's garden and I wanted them to harvest something so we came up with a task where they would harvest fruit loops not fruit or vegetables but they would dig up fruit loops so they have this arena and we move around these these pound these mounds of bedding and they were trained so when you see a mound you go and you just gently dig and voila there's a fruit loop and they had an opportunity to get for those every day so it's not intensive training it's about five or ten minutes a day for about six weeks but they're building those connections between the reward areas of the brain and the mode movement areas of the brain to produce effort based rewards well for proper science you need a control group to compare to this experimental group so our control group was a group that we put in the same arena and we gave them their Froot Loops regardless of what they did so my students like to call the contingent or the experimental group where their effort was contingent upon their behavior or their rewards were contingent upon their behavior the worker rats and the rats that got the reward no matter what there wasn't a contingency there the Trust Fund rats so we have the worker rats and the trust fund rats and so next we wanted to so we've done several studies so I see you can relate to that a little bit done several studies where we wanted to put our worker rats to the test to see if this effort based reward training generalize to other things so we like to expose them to new challenges like swimming they've been in the lab they've never been in water well the effort based reward worker rats they're more likely to dive down like little rats scuba divers to explore the environment and so and they showed more evidence of effective coping and when we look at their brains I think brains are gorgeous here they show more evidence of neuroplasticity that fertilizer brain derived neurotrophic factor more complex connections with the neurons so we see this neuroplasticity and and for the interventions and therapeutic approaches that we have currently for depression most of those directly or indirectly increase in our plasticity but here we're doing it naturally but that was with training we wanted another way to to stimulate effort based rewards that was more spontaneous so we've known for a while that if you put a rat in an exciting engaging world something we call an enriched environment kind of a Disneyland of sorts they are busier and they have more neuroplasticity and it seems to be great for their brains so we did this and we we also have we look at artificial kind of manufactured stimuli and more natural stimuli so we have our country rats and our city rats and they they seem to be equally smart but our country rats seemed have an edge on emotional resilience so they're more like those effort based reward rats that'll go out the bold ones and and also with our effort based reward rats we see lower stress hormones and higher hormones of resilience and remember we said that was important for mental health so we interestingly also we found that when we have a group of rats in the enriched environment and a group of rats and just a standard environment they do things more together not only in engaging with their environment but through cooperation and so we've actually shown that their oxytocin that we talked about increases when they're engaged these natural and enriched environments doing things together and that's important for our behavior suitable cocktail this doesn't surprise me because recently in Denmark they showed that humans they follow about a million who grew up with in their childhood household had more green around it shrubs trees there were up to fifty five percent less likely to experience depression and there in their life if we could bottle that well that would be amazing so where does that leave us we lit we're not going to go back to the cave we're not going to go back to being hunters and gatherers we're here in this advanced technologically rich world and we benefit in many ways from that but looking back at what we know about our ancestors and the brain and my wives rats I think it reminds us that we need to remember our evolutionary roots as we go forward in this world of technology and have a little bit of those effort based rewards especially if it's related to nature in some way to help us in our mental health well and I had an experience where I got to put this to the test to see if an engaged and riched environment would allow us would allow the rats to show more to healthier brains and I had a colleague who asked me Kelly can you teach a rat to drive a car and why would I want to do that that's not natural when it goes against everything I thought but we drive cars and before I knew it we were talking about how you would get at a rat to drive a car and how you would shape it to go in we decided it would grab the little bars and of course it would be driving to a fruit loop tree that's their drive-in and if you've ever wondered if you could teach her out to drive a car yes she can not only can they drive but they can steer their auto correcting right and this blew my mind but more relevant for this story is when we looked at rats that were in the enriched environment versus the standard environment the rats in the enriched environment when we took them through the the ropes of driving and to see how long it would take them to learn to drive the criterion for robust driving they learned in in 22 trials the standard rats it took well we don't know how long it would take they never really learned to drive this blew our minds that the enriched environment made our rats better learners of Technology so we think that are driving our enriched rats would get their driver's license but not so much for the rodents they would be to nod so as we think about our brains and what they evolved to do the idea of taking a single pill and being able to replicate what goes on in our brains naturally as it seems and as just about as unreasonable as thinking that we could take a pill to be a better parent you just can't do that you have to go through the ropes you have to had those experiences to go forward you have to have the behavior that leads to behavior suitable to change the neurochemically ways so I started with a mystery now what's going on with our brains why are these rates increasing and looking back and thinking about how our behavior can change not only our neuro chemistry of our neuroanatomy I think that the solution and clues may have been in our hands all along thank you [Applause] [Music] you