May 27, 2010

Exercising our brain power

Posted in Between Us column, Health at 7:08 pm by dinaheng

When it comes to the brain, conventional medicine is getting smarter about how to treat injuries and prevent future problems with memory loss.

I recently had the chance to attend a couple of UCLA Extension lectures featuring talks by Dr. Neil Martin, Chair of Neurosurgery at UCLA Medical Center, and Joshua Grill, Ph.D., director of the Katherine and Benjamin Kagan Alzheimer’s Disease Treatment Development Program at the Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at UCLA.

Both sessions were informative, and since I’d never have the patience to go through medical school, it was fascinating to get a glimpse of the technology being used and  research being done today.

Martin’s presentation included photos of customized operating rooms, which feature multiple flat panels and computers that can do 3D reconstruction of the body to see exactly where tumors are, so that surgeons can make the most minimally invasive incisions.

Robots are helping physicians to evaluate patients long distance when the doctor can’t be at the patient’s bedside. Researchers are working on a brain tumor vaccine, using tumor bio-markers to fight cancer with a patient’s own immune system.

“We have a hospital command and control center where software sorts patients by severity of illness, and how quickly they’re changing,” Martin said. “This allows specialists to be sent to the most critical beds asap.”

Most of us hope never to be inside an operating room as a patient, but it’s amazing to see how much information is available to surgeons in today’s operating environment. And yet, despite all the technical advances, there are still diseases whose treatment eludes us.

An estimated 5.4 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, a number that is expected to triple by 2050 because more people are living longer. Since 65 is generally the age of onset for Alzheimer’s, the longer you live, the more at risk you are for getting the disease.

While we may think that memory loss is just part of getting older, dementia is not a normal part of aging, Grill shared. Mental impairment comes from biological causes like Parkinson’s disease, Creutzfeld-Jacob disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

Yes, there are normal changes in memory as we age — slower thinking, difficulty paying attention, needing more memory cues and sensory decline — but thankfully, not all of us will deal with the kinds of problems that impair daily activities as we grow older.

Grill’s advice for the prevention of dementia:

* Eat healthy foods;

* Exercise;

* Wear a helmet during applicable sports to protect the brain from head trauma, and

* As you age, continue to exercise your brain and develop a strong social network.

In other words, keep challenging your intellect and make a lot of friends.

Surprisingly, Grill says it’s hard to get people into clinical trials, perhaps because the trials are investigational in nature and have no guarantee of benefits. Plus, the criteria for eligible participants is often narrow, in order to analyze and prove results.

“For example, if a person’s had a stroke and has Alzheimer’s disease, the stroke, or drugs taken for other conditions, might prevent us from seeing the effects of the treatment being studied,” Grill says. “Every study is different, so if someone’s interested in being in a clinical trial, we’ll try to find one they can participate in.”

Grill notes that with evolution, the cerebral cortex has grown in size over time, but the human skull has not kept pace, so the cortex had to fold over itself to fit in the skull.

“The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that gives us innate human characteristics of emotion, language, creativity, and knowing right from wrong,” Grill says.

Like the cerebral cortex in the skull, technology has grown rapidly, but the human capacity for dealing with data overload has not. We run to stay abreast of e-mails, entertain ourselves with video games instead of live conversation, and avoid human interaction by letting keyboards speak for us.

We change our lives to “take advantage” of technical advances, but I wonder sometimes whether technology is taking more in control than we are.

As medical science moves forward on that technical front, I really hope our cerebral cortexes are figuring out how to increase our emotional intelligence, and grow in our humanity as well.

After all, as they say, a brain is a terrible thing to waste.

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May 20, 2010

When dollars are not enough…

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Diversity, Travel at 7:06 pm by dinaheng

Nothing tears down a city like its people — or the people who visit it.

I went to Detroit recently on a business trip, and my plane landed late on a Saturday night. By the time I got to the Marriott at The Renaissance Center downtown, it was well after 1 a.m. and the streets were crowded with people. As I passed Hart Plaza, it was clear that some kind of public event had gone on, as the streets and gutters were trashed with plastic cups, beer bottles, and debris.

Walking into the hotel, I got into the elevator with four young Caucasians, dressed in cowboy hats and jeans. I smiled and asked what event was going on. They stared at me, and started making racist remarks about African Americans they’d run into on the street.  I couldn’t wait to get off the elevator.

The Detroit Hoedown had taken over the downtown area.  After checking in, I walked toward another bank of elevators, and stepped to the side as a group of police officers escorted several rowdy hoedowners out of the hotel.

Getting into the next open elevator, I commiserated with an African-American police officer, who said wearily, “I hate working down here. I’ve been called everything except the chocolate man tonight. These people come to town, trash it, and Detroit gets the bad rep.”

Unfortunately, the hoedowners also gave country music lovers a bad rep. Wearing a cowboy hat is not a license to act like you’re living in the Wild West. It’s great fun to gather and enjoy music (or any common interest) with other people, but I wonder how many of the hoedowners walk around drunk in their own hometowns, cussing at strangers, and leaving empty bottles of beer everywhere.

And why does Detroit put up with this kind of behavior? Probably because the city needs the money that tourists bring in, and it’s easier to tolerate a little disrespect than to lose those potential dollars. Unfortunately, tolerating those who tear up the town just encourages them to come back and act even worse next time.

You can see the same behavior in neighborhoods around Detroit that have deteriorated to the point where abandoned houses tell the story. You see one house where the family has moved out. Next to it is a house whose windows have been smashed, allowing vandals to steal everything inside from the appliances to the wiring.

Next to that is the saddest house. Not only have the windows been smashed, but after the interior has been stripped of anything with value, vandals have pounded on the inside walls to make the bricks on the exterior of the building fall off. The thieves then cart the bricks away and sell them, leaving a shell of a structure where a family once lived.

Detroit has dealt with hard times for many years now. Its economy has been decimated with the woes of the auto industry, and many residents have left for greener states. Yet those who remain hold on to positive attitudes and the belief that things will get better.

It’s that spirit that will help the city survive. Holding an annual Detroit Hoedown to bring new visitors and new money to town is a good idea, as long as the city takes enough pride in its own people to make it clear that racism and hooligans are not welcome.

Otherwise, the city will lose more than a few dollars. It will have lost its soul.

May 13, 2010

Subliminal messages reach unconscious

Posted in Between Us column, Health, Relationships at 5:03 am by dinaheng

The messages we hear in life profoundly affect our behavior and self-esteem.

As children, whenever we were told that we were smart, pretty, stupid, or clumsy, the messages got embedded somewhere inside, and we began to act as though the messages were true.

As adults, we are constantly battling those messages from our past — as well as negative thoughts in the present  — as we try to change behaviors that don’t serve us well. Behaviors like smoking, overeating, setting ourselves up in unhappy relationships, or sabotaging our own success at work.

One potential aid to changing negative behaviors is the use of subliminal audio programs, which put  the mind in a receptive state to hear positive messages on a non-verbal level.

“Our programs use subliminal techniques and neurosonic attunement, which uses a range of tones and frequencies, to affect the subliminal consciousness,” says Susannah Lippman, owner of Alphasonics in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “For example, an upbeat piece of music can bring your spirits up. The heartbeat is what we heard in the womb, so we’re calmed by that. We use different sounds and positive messages to reach the mind below the threshold of conscious hearing.”

Lippman explains that listeners hear nature sounds on the audio programs, and messages like “I am wonderfully successful” get through to the subconscious on a different frequency, by-passing people’s resistance to change and inner doubts.

She says three factors play a part in how successful the audio programs are for individuals:

1. How susceptible the person is to suggestion;

2. How easy the goal is to achieve, for that person, and

3. How often a person uses the audio program, and whether the program is heard through speakers or earphones.

“We have different channels for the right and left brain hemispheres,” Lippman says. “If you use earphones, and pay attention to the left and ride side markings, you’ll hear the right channel for each side of the brain. On a speaker, you only get 80 percent of the benefit because you’ll hear a mix in both ears.”

Underneath the nature sounds, the listener gets an estimated 30 different affirmations on each program. With the repetition of the affirmations, the mind receives more than a million positive messages for each hour of programming.

Alphasonics does not advertise, and most sales are to repeat customers and practitioners like psychologists, chiropractors and counselors who use the audio programs with patients. The company offers a money-back guarantee on results, and Lippman says it’s rare to get a return request. (www.alphasonics.com)

People use the audio programs to change habits, such as to quit smoking, lose weight, or to stop procrastinating, as well as to change habitual ways of thinking, such as believing that they’re unattractive, will never have a fulfilling love life, or will never be wealthy.

“Any habit, if you’re going to change it, takes daily reinforcement, which the programs provide,” Lippman says. “Once you get past the habit, you can go on without the audio programs. Most people begin to notice results in about three weeks, though reaching the entire goal takes longer. For some who are resistant to change, it takes 90 days or more to see changes.

“Once the habit changes, we recommend people continue to use the program for another three weeks for reinforcement. It works much more powerfully than listening to someone’s words in a lecture. All our titles have two underlying themes — self esteem and inner calm.”

In a world where negative messages abound, those are themes we all need to hear more often.

May 6, 2010

Sisters explore Santa Barbara

Posted in Between Us column, Relationships, Travel, Women at 4:21 pm by dinaheng

When my sister Linda and I travel together, we look for things to do that will satisfy her culinary curiosity, my scientific interests, and our common love of comfort on the road.

Recently, we took a two-day trip to Santa Barbara, hoping to go on a whale watching cruise. Wanting to be near the beach, we stayed at the Harbor View Inn, a lovely boutique hotel at the foot of Sterns Wharf. The rooms were large, the beds were comfortable, and parking was included, which isn’t always the case with beach hotels.

The location was great, particularly since we just had to walk across the street for a tour on the Land Shark, a Hydra Terra that offers a fun 90-minute tour through Santa Barbara’s streets and onto the waters of Santa Barbara Harbor through Land and Sea Tours.

The vehicle rides eight feet above the ground on land, so the wind blowing through the open sides made things a tad chilly that day.  But the shift from land to sea was totally seamless and the wind stopped blowing once we were on the water.

“If it was stormy, we wouldn’t run,” says Capt. Andre Manoux, who carries both a U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license and a commercial driver’s license with passenger endorsement. “We have windows and a roof, but if it’s really windy, we wouldn’t go out.”

Luckily for us, the wind cooperated and we were able to sail around the harbor, getting close to sea lions (or were they harbor seals?) sunning themselves on a buoy, rent-free. What a life…

That evening, we strolled through the Farmer’s Market on State Street, looking at luscious strawberries, home-made pies, and garden-fresh vegetables grown in the area. All that food made us hungry, so we dropped into Pierre Lafond Wine Bistro for dinner.

Linda, who is a foodie at heart, pointed out the fresh taste of the cucumber slice in the water, before ordering the confit of duck with butternut, asparagus and mushroom risotto. I chose the stave roasted salmon, which came with a lentil ragout and golden baby carrots.

Our waiter explained that the salmon was cooked on a sterilized plank from the barrels of Lafond Pinot Noir at the Santa Barbara Winery, an interesting variation of cedar plank salmon.

Exploring new places is a wonderful way to learn about the world, and enrich the soul. You experience new things, meet new people, and learn what it is you really value in life. When you make that journey with a friend or family member, the trip becomes part of your collective memory, strengthening the bond between you.

The next morning, we got disappointing news that our whale watching cruise had been canceled because of the strong winds. With any luck, the winds would die down and we could go out the following day.

Since we were landlocked, Linda and I decided to visit as many museums and historical spots in town as as we could. The first stop was Mission Santa Barbara, at the edge of town.

It was fun to imagine what life was like back in 1786, when the church was founded by the Franciscan Order. The chapel is still used for worship today, and the cemetery holds the grave of Juana Maria,  the real-life young Native American woman who served as the inspiration for the character Karana in the novel, “Island of the Blue Dolphins.”

Driving back downtown, we stopped at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art to peruse the exhibits. My favorite was a collection of 40 works from the Walters Art Museum, which featured paintings by French, British, Spanish and American artists.

From Delacroix and Monet, we moved to the Ty Warner Sea Center on Sterns Wharf. While the facility is small, its hands-on approach is a great way to learn about marine life in the area. Docents let us touch a small shark, and we watched a decorator crab try to camouflage itself in a tank.

When it was time for dinner, we tried Elements, a restaurant near the Courthouse downtown. The bar was bustling, and the dining room had the a trendy, yet cozy,   neighborhood feel.

This time, Linda chose seafood, and I had a meat entree. Her crispy skin Arctic Char was delicious. My grilled double cut pork chop was somewhat ordinary, but the accompanying wild mushrooms, sweet onion mashed potato and homemade apple sauce were wonderful. Both of us were too full to even try dessert.

The next morning, the winds continued to blow strong gusts, and the whale watching cruise was canceled yet again. So we swung by the Museum of Natural History before leaving town. I loved the Spanish Mediterranean complex of buildings, which house exhibitions on topics ranging from minerals and gems to mammals. The nature trail in back is beautiful and well worth the walk.

For two sisters who love to eat and explore, Santa Barbara made a perfect getaway. Maybe next time, there will be whales to watch, as well.