brain freeze explained

25 March, 2008


Why do we get “brain freeze” when we eat something cold?
-Christina Zuniga, via e-mail

Mark A. W. Andrews, professor of physiology and director of the Independent Study Pathway at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, replies:

This commonly experienced pain, also known as an ice cream headache, results from quickly eating or drinking very cold substances. Officially termed sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia (talk about a painful mouthful!), it is the di­rect result of the rapid cooling and rewarming of the blood vessels in the palate, or the roof of the mouth. A similar but painless blood vessel response causes the face to appear “flushed” after being outside on a cold day. In both instances, the cold temperature causes blood vessels to constrict and then experience extreme rebound dilation as they warm up again.

In the palate, this dilation is sensed by nearby pain receptors, which then send signals back to the brain via the trigeminal nerve, one of the major nerves of the facial area. This nerve also senses facial pain, so as the signals are conducted the brain interprets the pain as coming from the forehead—the same “referred pain” phenomenon seen in heart attacks. Brain-freeze pain may last from a few seconds to a few minutes, which is blissfully short as compared with the duration of its cousin, the migraine headache. Research suggests that the same vascular mechanism and nerve implicated in brain freeze cause the aura (sensory disturbance) and pulsatile (throbbing pain) phases of migraines. Interestingly, it is impossible to give yourself an ice cream headache in cold weather—only in a warm ambient temperature will it hurt to wolf down a banana split.

Fortunately, abstaining from ice cream is not necessary. Placing the tongue hard against the palate may help, as will eating cold foods more slowly or warming food in the front of your mouth before swallowing.

Don’t you feel so much better now!!?! I do.


What I got

14 March, 2008

In early November of 2000, I was in New Orleans at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference. My boyfriend had come along, and we were staying in a beautiful bed-and-breakfast that, needless to say, was NOT on the conference hotels list. It was the internet boom–we ate so well that, to this day, our friends are sick of hearing about this trip. The election was going on–you may recall the election of November 2000 and how, er, stimulating it was. It was my first conference, my first presentation, and I was utterly psyched. SFN is infamous for its size (over 25,000 attendees) and its scope (“neuroscience” can mean almost anything, and at this conference, it does). All the posters and science to see and absorb…and then in the evening, all the ancillary events. Panels, interest groups, receptions, and I belonged there. Everything was possible.

As was my wont, I went to a career panel. I knew even during my undergrad years that academia was not for me, and that I was interested in an “alternative career” (a disgusting ivory tower phrase for the outside world, IMO). Of course, being an idiot who went to grad school for only the dimmest of reasons, I had no idea what I wanted beyond that. So I tried to go to a lot of panels and read a lot of books about “alternative careers.” This panel was not specifically about that–it was intended to present the diversity of options that would lay before me someday in the distant future. Good enough. I vaguely remember that it had a representative from the classic academia tenure track, a science writer, and somebody else–probably a researcher/administrator from industry or biotech.

But I CLEARLY remember the man who represented science policy. He described his days as a science and technology policy fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He had worked in the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which did what it sounds like it’d do: assess technology for Congress. An intertube describes it this way: “The OTA was created in 1972 to provide Congress objective analyses of major public policy issues related to scientific and technological change.” A Congresscritter would come to them and ask for a report on any topic under the sun. They’d research it and write it up in a nonpartisan fashion. Another quote:

Holt pointed out how many of the OTA reports, from over a decade ago, are still timely and pertinent, including reports like “Retiring old cars: Programs to save gasoline and reduce emissions,” “Renewing our energy future,” “Potential environmental impacts of bioenergy crop production,” “Innovation and commercialization of emerging technologies,” and “Testing in America’s schools: Asking the right questions.”

This sounded like pure heaven. Then, as now, I was a dilettante, interested in too many things, and I was beginning to see just how fucking stupid I had been to go to graduate school, the entire POINT of which is to train you in specialization. The idea that I could grow up and use my prospective science and research skillz to tackle all sorts of different projects–and for a purpose? To a specific end? (I was also beginning to realize that my penchant for efficiency might have been useful day-to-day, but could never have a place in research as a lifelong endeavour.) Turns out the guy was there specifically to promote the AAAS Science Policy Fellowship that had gotten him to OTA. One needed one’s Ph.D. in hand to apply. Still, I took the application packet and read it cover to cover.

I did the same thing at my next conference, and the next, and at local panels, and eventually I was going to panels and I already knew everything they were saying about the fellowships. When I’d network and discuss science policy, I’d hear about the fellowships and how many doors they opened. In dark research moments I’d read about science policy and notice that nearly everything I read was written by a former fellow. While writing my dissertation, I found an ad for a related job in the back of the journal Science, cut it out and taped it in the “escapism” corner of my desk, near the photos of Paris and the ocean at Sharm el-Sheikh (a resort in Egypt where my sister had spent a summer). When considering jobs, the fact that my current job would put me in DC, where I would have top networking opportunities and learn incredible amounts purely by osmosis, was a consideration.

When I got here, I picked every brain I knew, developed my network, picked their brains, and then asked THEM for people whose brains I could pick. And picked them. All of them said the same thing. You must apply for the AAAS fellowship, it’s invaluable, it’s great, it’s perfect experience and perfect for the resume. They all said it was very competitive and then said they had gotten it on the first try. They all took great pride in telling me a particular insider “secret” about the system, such that when I spoke to a new person and I heard them get quieter and conspiratorial, I knew what was coming. I acted surprised each time.

The time finally came: my career had reached a turning point. I was on top of my field and had to either fight to stay there or bow out. The deadlines and start dates and end dates of my commitments and the fellowship lined up perfectly. So I applied. I came out to my boss as an alternative-career lover. I converted valuable research-world patrons into references in fields where they were virtually unknown. I spent valuable research time, time that our rivals were using to do science, writing my application. I doubted my decision when research went well, stood by it when not. I wrote and wrote and wrote about myself (the app was an essay, a CV, another essay, and a biography). I asked for help from aforementioned network. When they started giving me contradictory advice based on their personalities, I knew I had worked it for all it was worth. I sent it in and I waited. I got an interview and one last hoop: write a one-page memo about something and in the interview you will present it and we will ask questions. I sat down to write the memo and I realized that, after all these years of saying “I want to do science policy,” I didn’t know what “policy” meant. I figured it out. I sent it in. I interviewed.

I got the email at noon today: I got the fellowship. Now it’s 8. And I have no idea what to do now.


14 March, 2008


The best feeling in research

22 February, 2008

When your experiment succeeds late on a Friday! Sends you home right!

(The worst feeling: well, you can figure it out.)

Aaaaah, what a nice feeling. I’ve been out of it, lab-wise, for weeks. This week I finally snap into what’s going on, step on people’s toes in my struggle to make them explain it to me, and in two days I’ve solved a problem that had been tripping the lab up for weeks.

That’s just how I roll.

(And now off I go to my phone-less, internet-less home, and neighbors who practice good wireless network security techniques. Damn them! Damn you, Verizon! Goodbye, sweet Internets…)


The knitted brain–holy shit. The quilt is groovy, but I’m a knitter, and I love the 3D aspect. No experience has been as important to my understanding of neuroscience and neuroanatomy as dissecting a brain in my first year of graduate school. Which is kind of “duh”, I know…but to handle a human brain every week, cut away pieces and really see how it was put together…

OMG! A zipper as the corpus callosum (the structure that links the left and right lobes of the brain). Bril.

There is a disclaimer:

While our artists make every effort to insure [sic] accuracy, we cannot accept responsibility for the consequences of using fabric brain art as a guide for functional magnetic resonance imaging, trans-cranial magnetic stimulation, neurosurgery, or single-neuron recording.

Good thing they covered their asses there!

I found this page through MindHacks, a fun blog based on the O’Reilly book of the same name; both aim to provide “neuroscience and psychology tricks to find out what’s going on inside your brain.” And they do it well–I haven’t bought the book yet, but I paged through it a few years ago for a friend who asked me to vet the neuroscience, and IIRC I was impressed. Hardly a shock considering the publishing house, which is known in the tech world for its high quality.

Today the MindHacks folk featured Blue Jean Brain II by artist Lee Pirozzi.

Which reminded me of LAST week, when they had me humming “if I only had a brain handbag”:

Designer Jun Takashi has created a high fashion handbag, shaped like a brain. Why? You ask. Why not? I answer.

At this point I would like to make it clear that the idea that we only use 10% of our handbag is a myth.

Scientific studies have found that all of the handbag is in constant use, although some parts may be more active than others.

(I like how they debunk the ridiculous 10% myth. It might be true in the Angel from Montgomery sense*, but not in the neurological.)

The Wizard of Oz joke up there is that I have a lot of bags. By which I mean purses. I blame the DSW Shoe Warehouse in Chicago on Clark and Wellington, which was not only within easy reach of public transportation but had free parking. (I got a lot of shoes there too, but those are more socially acceptable, and I tend to purge shoes more as they age, but bags don’t wear out as fast.) I remember one day when I came home to Chicago Ex and said, “Look at this bag I bought!” “Oh good,” he said, “You needed more bags.” I was flattered that he’d noticed, a second later I figured out I was being teased. These days, with every new bag I acquire, Reaganite slightly-sardonically asks “So….is THIS one the Perfect Bag?” I have to explain that the perfect bag is a platonic ideal**, and that different needs require different bags, so no one bag can ever be perfect, so it is not an answerable question. He laughs at me anyway. Perhaps he has never taken philosophy.

Here is the ironic part: I have a dearth of luggage, the most useful type of bag. I also have no professional-looking bags for interviews and other sorts of days when I need to look like a grownup. Purses, purses everywhere, and not a one to take to San Diego for a conference.

I tried to take a picture of the closet that has most of my purses in it, but it didn’t really get the point across. I have them all hanging on racks and hooks on the back of my front/coat closet door, and well, let’s just say that the door basically has to be forced closed.

Maybe I should shoot each one and make a grid of them, or something. That WOULD help me purge, as some of them are probably embarrassing, stylewise. I could try to do them chronologically, then I would have an excuse.

You know, because I don’t have enough to do.


*”How the hell can a person/Go to work in the morning/Come home in the evening/And have nothing to say?

**Have you ever noticed that every time the Platonic ideal idea is explained pedagogically, the teacher uses the example of a chair? 4 out of 4 times in my academic experience. Bizarre.

Via MindHacks, a very good post about the question of whether addiction is a disorder of the body or of the will. It is very creative in its use of what is often thought of as a 100% physiological and genetic disease as an example.

This topic is much in the media recently (perhaps someone is plugging a book and I have missed it?)  I recommend the post as an orientation to the issues.

Peer pressure

2 May, 2007

“Techne, going to the talk?”

It’s 11:50 and due to government hoop-jumping I only got in an hour before and so I’ve barely done anything yet. Talks really fuck with my flow in general, I’m sorta — you’ll be shocked to hear this — ADD/hyperfocusy when it comes to work. And I didn’t mark this talk in my calendar, which means it didn’t catch my eye.

But jeez, the whole lab is going! Our PI. All 3 other fellows including the one who barely speaks English. One of two technicians AND the senior non-PI scientist. IOW, everyone who’s in today who isn’t tied to the bench by a timer.

“Um, what’s it about?”
“Schizophrenia, cortical activation something.”
SCZ (as we abbreviate it)? That’s not even my area. That’s not anyone’s area in our lab. I ask who’s giving it and the talk isn’t familiar. Of course, me having a bad name memory and not “doing” SCZ, he could be a Nobelist in the damn field and I’d barely know. And “cortical”, that doesn’t sound too genetic. Sounds like all the cell biology stuff I ran screaming from in grad school. Yeah, definitely a talk I’d skip under normal circumstances, and my feet already hurt from my morning adventures in walking-all-the-hell-over-NIH.

“Where is it?”
“[Halfway across campus.]”

Sigh. My feet can just barely take that, and it’s SO damn nice out, and EVERYONE is going and look they’re already out the door. I pick up my notepad, which this week features a list titled “OMG I have so much to do” and has 10 items already, and join the crowd. After all, if everyone is going, maybe it will be good, right?

Yeah, you know what that sentence means as well as I do. Worst. Use. Of an hour. Ever. Some better uses of my time would have been:

Sleeping at my desk. It would at least have been restful, more restful than lecture-naps. Everyone has nodded off at a talk at one time or another, but once in grad school I got called out for snoring during a talk. That was seriously embarrassing, and now I live in fear of doing it again. Luckily nobody I knew was at that talk, but this time both Boss (PI) AND Boss’ Boss were there. (‘Course, Boss was sleeping himself. Later we traded staying-awake-through-lecture tips. I usually bite my hand as hard as I can stand, and kick myself/step on my toes under the table if there is a table. Along the same “pain” lines, he pulls the hairs on the back of his neck. Oh, the things one learns in one’s postdoc.)
Staring into space in an empty room. I could have meditated. Net gain in relaxation.
Poking myself in the face with my pencil. This could have gotten me injured and given me a good excuse to leave the hall, albeit a hard-to-explain one. Hmm, why DIDN’T I do this?

Now, don’t get me wrong. The talk was a perfectly decent talk for someone in the field or who cared about that sort of approach. It just wasn’t at all interesting to me. I have a hard enough time learning to be a geneticist, faking my way through electrophysiology is not something I’m into. I spent about half the talk trying, about another 1/3 biting my hand as hard as I could stand, and the last bit doodling. Here is what is written in the doodle-space of my “OMG I have so much to do” list.

  • A very tiny stick drawing of a female figure, with hair sticking out in all directions and her hands on her face and a word balloon saying “HALP.” (This ungrammar is inspired by the weekend I spent reading lolcats.)
  • Very tiny writing recapitulating what I remembered of the lolcats:
  • Very tiny writing saying “OH NOES I’S TRAPPED IN BORING”
  • Very tiny writing saying “HALP I NEED A HALP”
  • Less tiny writing saying “stand up for what U Need next time”
  • Primary list of ppl for whom I need to buy Mother’s Day cards
  • Secondary list of ppl for whom I need to buy Mother’s Day cards

Talk protocol is such that if you look like a grad student who might be mid-experiment you can leave whenever, but you need to have positioned yourself unobtrusively for people to buy it, and we all were sitting mid-row. You best believe I would have worked that shit had I been better positioned. It FINALLY ended, but the questions, of course, went on and on. All I could think was: great, now I am wasting MORE than an hour at this talk. (I wrote most of my lolcat phrases on my pad during this period.)

Protocol specifies that you can leave after the applause and before the Q&A, whoever you are. But I was mid-row and went with a large group and protocol FURTHER specifies — OK, strongly recommends — that you not leave individually if you all came together. I kept my eye on the three dudes at the end of the row who were blocking our egress and when they finally left I oh-so-subtly pointed it out to my PI.  “Look,” I said. “Those guys left, we’re clear.” “You guys are,” he said ruefully, “I’m stuck here. I’m having lunch with the guy.” (Lunch with a speaker is a tradition, there are anywhere from 2 to 15 people in attendance, so this doesn’t mean they were buddies.)

The next questioner’s question was an annoying non-sequitur, and I’d had enough. I got up and left without listening to the answer, walking over all our lab’s attendees as I went.  Even though it was probably the last question, I didn’t want to have to deal with being social with the labmates. I walked back to the lab all pissed off at the waste.  Well, it WAS a nice day, anyway.

Other members trickled in after me, and to the tech I said something like “Wish I hadn’t gone to THAT talk,” and he said “Me too.”  Wait.  Him too?  “Why did you go?” I asked. “‘Cause everyone else was?” “Yeah…”

Ding! I put two and two together as the light went on, illuminating the puzzle pieces as they jumped into focus.  Tech and I went because a critical mass had formed.  The mass formed because a few people were joining our PI, cause when the PI goes to a talk, it’s usually important.  The PI didn’t want to go, but the speaker was hosted by his boss, whose field the talk WAS in. I could just imagine the email from his boss encouraging him to come and lunch with this faboo researcher.  It was all just one long chain of peer pressure!

This is probably some kind of definition of power.