Author Archives: Emily Aidan Berthiaume

You’re in Paris, what can you be worried about?

Don't get too distracted by the beauty of the Eiffel Tower at night, you may lose something important!

For all of the wonderful and enjoyable aspects of Paris, there is a slight hint of danger that goes along with being a tourist in a foreign city. Whether it’s defending your traveling minion from potential pickpocketers (Sam,) warding off aggressive wine salesmen at the Eiffel Tower (Sehe,) and making friends with RER train guards to protect you from the party animals at Châtelet (Noareen, Ankita, and Max,) being an American (and sticking out like a sore thumb) in Paris can be somewhat stressful in these kinds of situations. As a group, we were collectively prepared for this before we came on the trip. Kris, our protective guide, gave us plenty of warnings about the pickpocketers before we finished the spring semester this last year at Emory. Needless to say, we all have padlocks on our backpacks when we go anywhere. We always travel with buddies, and frequently with the entire crew. Most importantly, we have all picked up the ability to walk past the guys selling trinkets on the street without saying a word or even looking in their general direction. While this behavior is very different from the way people treat one another on Emory’s campus, it is definitely necessary for navigating the streets of Paris safely.

Traveling as a group makes for great pictures

Just in this last weekend, we probably experienced some of the most anxiety inducing situations of the entire trip. Let me preface this story by saying we are perfectly fine and laugh about this experience already. This Friday, the summer solstice, was the annual Fête de la Musique where musicians, old and young, come out onto the streets and play their violins, bagpipes, guitars, electronic techno equipment, and bell-piano hybrids that need to be driven around on trucks. All of Paris spends the night celebrating the musical festival in the streets and enjoying the good life. However, with all of this fun, there are some people who take to the partying aspect more than others. We quickly learned to give these patrons a wide berth, and kept an even closer eye on each other as a group. While trying to get back home after the festival, some of us squeezed each others hands as we ran away from dangerous situations until we got to the safety of the Cité Universitaire. Good thing we decided to wear comfortable shoes that night!

A map of Place de la Bastille, one of the most exciting areas during Fête de la Musique

So, being in Paris has been a great experience, but it’s exposed me to different kinds of stresses than what I’m used to at Emory. Of course, we all stay up late doing research for Dr. Crutcher’s class, and finishing our writing assignments for Dr. Frenzel. This “stressful” aspect of taking classes is nothing new. On the other hand, avoiding confrontation while trying to remember our way around the city and communicating with strangers that don’t speak English is a completely new kind of stress. The effects of stress on the brain has been a topic of many research studies trying to understand the stress mechanisms. In the body, stress causes the release of molecules called glucocorticoids from the adrenal glands above the kidneys (Webster and Sternberg, 2004). These molecules can travel through the blood and affect the brain (Webster and Sternberg, 2004). Glucocorticoids have been shown to be helpful when memories become stored in the brain, but cause problems when people are trying to recall information in their memory (Soravia et al., 2009). These molecules, in cortisone form, have been used to treat people with disorders related to frightening memories, such as PTSD and phobias (Soravia et al., 2009). In previous studies, the introduction of cortisol when subjects were introduced to situations related to their fearful memories reduced the fearful symptoms they had previously displayed when being exposed to the scary stimulus (Soravia et al., 2006).

The structure of cortisone.

In a recent study by Soravia and associates in 2009, the researchers were looking at the effects of cortisone (glucocorticoid) administration in normal people to see if there was reduced fear in socially frightening situations, just like how they had seen fear symptom reduction in people with fear disorders (Soravia et al., 2009). The potential fear inducing social situation the subjects were tested in was comprised of the subjects explaining why someone should hire them, and then attempting an unprepared mental arithmetic task (Soravia et al., 2009). Cortisone administration was found to have no effect on fear symptom reduction in this group of healthy individuals tested in this study (Soravia et al., 2009). The symptoms measured were subjective ratings of anxiety (feelings of nervousness and worry,) physical discomfort, and avoidance behavior of the interaction (Soravia et al., 2009). With increased amounts of cortisone administration, measured through saliva samples, the data in this study indicated no significant reduction in the amount of subjective fear symptoms the participants experienced (Soravia et al., 2009).

These data seem to suggest that the potential fear reducing properties of glucocorticoids in people with pathological fears do not apply to normal people (Soravia et al., 2009). In past studies, the medial temporal lobe (MTL), a part located on the side of the brain, has been shown to be very important in memory retrieval (Soravia et al., 2009). In social phobic subjects as compared to subjects without fear of social situations, the MTL was reported to activate when the people were in public speaking scenarios and was activation was prevented with drug administration (Soravia et al., 2009). Maybe patients with social phobias have more memory of fear related to these situations, or maybe they are more prone to the effects of the administered glucocorticoids (Soravia et al., 2009). Based on the data gathered in this study, it seems that this possible treatment effect can only be applied to people with fear memories that are so deeply rooted that they feel distressed when they are retrieving and recalling the troublesome memories (Soravia et al., 2009).

While the time we have spent in Paris has been full of fun adventures and plenty of acquired academic knowledge and street smarts, it has not been without some situational stress. The feeling of a language barrier and a different culture may have had an effect on all of us, but may only be partially alleviated by cortisone administration if we had a pathological fear of these scenarios, as the Soravia study seems to suggest (Soravia et al., 2009). While I can say that I have not acquired a pathological fear of a new culture, or even early morning party animals, I have definitely learned a few tactics that are essential to survival of the tourist lifestyle. Just a word to the wise if you plan on traveling to Paris anytime soon, make sure you do your homework on the potential perils of your voyage. The pickpocketers know you’re coming, and may literally steal your IPad out of your hands while you’re taking video of the Eiffel Tower. You want to also know how to reject aggressive salesmen or people interested in you at a bar. The more you know, the better prepared you are to deal with these kind of potential situations that can put a damper on your trip. Take an opportunity beforehand to put your mind at ease, and enjoy the different atmosphere a new city has to offer safely.

Do yourself a favor and invest in some locks!

~ Emily Aidan Berthiaume

Works Cited

Soravia L, Heinrichs M, Aerni A, Maroni C, Schelling G, Ehlert U, Roozendaal B, de Quervain D (2006) Glucocorticoids reduce phobic fear in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America 103:5585-5590.

Soravia L, de Quervain D, Heinrichs M (2009) Glucocorticoids do not reduce subjective fear in healthy subjects to social stress. Biological Psychology.

Webster J and Sternberg E (2004) Role of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, glucocorticoids and glucocorticoid receptors in toxic sequelae of exposure to bacterial and viral products. Journal of Endocrinology 181:207-221.

Paris, the City of Love

Visiting the Pont de Arts bridge in front of the Institut de France in Paris will leave you with a sense of true French “amour.” On father’s day, I had the opportunity to see the bridge up close. Despite seeing plenty of couples taking wedding pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower, buying macaroons at Laduree on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, and enjoying an afternoon together in the gardens at the Palace of Versailles, the romance of this city hadn’t quite hit me. The instant I walked on to this bridge, I didn’t even notice the gorgeous view because I couldn’t see anything past the chain-linked railings on either side. I think I’m just starting to understand why Paris is known as the city of love.

Looking at the Institut de France from the Pont de Arts bridge

Looking at the Institut de France from the Pont de Arts bridge

On either side of the bridge, you will see thousands of locks that have been secured to the railings. The locks are on every grate all the way up from the bridge planks to the top of the fence. From a distance, the sides of the bridge appear to be completely opaque. I was actually worried that there might not be room to put more locks somewhere along the grates overlooking the Seine. To make sure the love that the lock represents lasts forever, the tradition is to throw the keys over the bridge and into the river after you secure the lock to the bridge. While this may be an act of littering, I guess the French disregard it for the sake of romance.

While plenty of couples do this to ensure their relationship will last forever, plenty of people do it for their families as well. As a girl who has grown up in a big family, I can never imagine life without them. My childhood was filled with memories at our lake cabin in Wisconsin, vacations to places like Colorado, Canada, and Grand Cayman, and most importantly, partying like pirates on Halloween. To sum up my feelings in a few short words, my mom is more than my best friend and my dad is larger than life. I can’t forget my amazing sisters Carley and Kris, and my best brother Tim too. (I promise I’ll get to talking about how this relates to neuroscience, and ignore the shoutouts if you want, but being in a city thriving on emotion has me feeling very sentimental!)

In order to recognize the faces of people that you are familiar with, your brain has created special networks for processing this visual information (Arsalidou et al., 2010). This especially holds true for the faces of parents. On either side of the brain, people have two areas known as the fusiform gyri that are thought to help recognize faces (Barton et al., 2002). The fusiform gyrus on the right side of the brain has been noted to be especially important in recognizing facial configuration (Barton et al., 2002). When this part of the brain is damaged, people present symptoms of prosopagnosia and cannot recognize faces (Barton et al., 2002). Due to an underlying emotional connection children typically have with their parents, other areas of the brain beyond the fusiform gyrus have been implicated in recognizing the two familiar faces of their parents (Arsalidou et al., 2010).

The highlighted part shows the fusiform gyrus

One of the cruxes of the study of parental face recognition performed by Arsalidou and associates in 2010 hinged upon the subjects growing up living with both parents, having both parents alive at the time of the study, and remaining in regular contact with their parents (Arsalidou et al., 2010). For people who grew up raised by another important adult figures, these areas of the brain may or may not be activating in the same way, but that was not considered as a part of this study (Arsalidou et al., 2010). The areas of the brain that activated when looking at the faces were measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) (Arsalidou et al., 2010). fMRI is a non-invasive way to measure the change in blood flow to certain regions in the brain; areas with the most blood flow are considered to be the most activated during a specific task.

When looking at pictures of their mother, the subjects’ fMRI scans showed the most parts of the brain being activated compared to all other presented faces (Arsalidou et al., 2010). This extensive activation suggests that the mother’s face is the most important face a person can recognize (Arsalidou et al., 2010). Many structures including the middle temporal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus were activated in comparison to known, but not personally relevant, celebrity female faces (Arsalidou et al., 2010). These areas of the brain are located near the fusiform gyrus within the temporal lobe, which is located on the side of the brain (Arsalidou et al., 2010). The activation of the middle temporal and inferior frontal gyrus when looking at your mother’s face, areas thought to be related to processing recognition of your own face, seems to show that there may be an overlap in processing both the face of your mother and the appearance of your own face (Arsalidou et al., 2010). This may be due to an overlap between memories of your mother with memories you have of yourself given the very strong emotional attachment between mother and child (Arsalidou et al., 2010).

The highlighted part shows the temporal lobe

The faces of fathers specifically activated the caudate when compared to other known, but not personally applicable, celebrity males (Arsalidou et al., 2010). The caudate is a brain area associated with the memory of feelings of love or reward (Arsalidou et al., 2010). This brain structure was also active when the subjects looked at their mothers’ faces; however, other brain structures were more predominantly active than the caudate (Arsalidou et al., 2010). The caudate appears to contribute to a feeling of endearment we have towards our parents (Arsalidou et al., 2010).

The highlighted structure is the caudate

To sum up the findings, distinct patterns of areas in your brain are activated when you see the faces of people you are attached to, like your mother and father. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is very important for recognizing the people who will love and take care of you from every single other person in the world (Arsalidou et al., 2010). Greater activation when looking at your mother’s face may be due to the extensive emotional memory connection between a mother and child (Arsalidou et al., 2010). Significant activation in the caudate from seeing your father’s face may indicate our feeling of paternal love (Arsalidou et al., 2010). These patterns of activation are very important to a human being given the highly social nature of our species and how much we are emotionally attached to the people who raise us.

So, for the two people who have loved me more than anyone else in the world, I happily left a lock on the bridge. While I can’t wait to return home and have my brain activated in the specific patterns that only looking at the faces of my mother and father can do, I have a new appreciation of the amount of love shown in various ways throughout this city. I plan on enjoying every aspect of my last two weeks here, and hope to stumble upon more treasures like this bridge. No one in my family has ventured to Europe before I took this trip, and I hope that I can someday bring them back to show them the lock I left on the bridge for all of us.

Lots and lots of locks

Lots and lots of locks

One in a million

Sending my love all the way back to the crazy, fun, and cortically irreplaceable family I have back in Minnesota,

~ Emily Aidan Berthiaume

Works Cited

Arsalidou, M., Barbeau, E. J., Bayless, S. J., Taylor, M. J. (2010) Brain responses differ to faces of mothers and fathers. Brain and Cognition 74:47-51.

Barton, J. J.S., Press, D. Z., Keenan, J. P., O’Connor, M. (2002) Lesions of the fusiform face area impair perception of facial configuration in prosopagnosia. Neurology 58:71-78.

The Pont de Arts bridge is located to the right of the word "Seine" on the river

Monet and Memory

Claude Monet's "The Rue of Montorgueil in Paris. Celebration of June 30, 1878"

If you quickly glance at Claude Monet’s “The Rue Montorgueil in Paris. Celebration of June 30, 1878” as you visit the Musée d’Orsay, you can instantly recognize individual objects in this scene depicting a french celebration with crowds of people walking in the street. Look closer. The blocks of color on the flags are so blurred you may have trouble distinguishing one flag from the next. The crowds of people in the street are almost inseparable into individual persons. The typical Parisian gates on the bottom of the windows are nothing but dark blotches. Still, you can recognize these objects and people for what they are, even in a painting you have probably never seen before.

Musée d'Orsay in Paris, France

This ability has to do with a kind of memory your brain uses to identify something that you see, and it is called “object-recognition” memory (ORM) (Winters et al., 2008). Generally, the hippocampus is a brain part known to be very important in this kind of memory (Winters et al., 2008). This structure mainly houses declarative memories, such as the abilities to remember the name of the dessert that you picked up at a boulangerie or to tell taxi drivers the address you’re staying at while in Paris (Winters et al., 2008). Despite the importance of the hippocampus, it is not the only structure in the brain that houses memory. Brain structures like the orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala, and cerebellum also house components of memory. Even recently, parts of the cortex that decode visual information have been found to be important in certain types of memory, like ORM (Winters et al., 2008).

The brain processes visual information in a hierarchical manner. The photoreceptors in the eye sense spots of light and send signals to other neurons in the brain that activate to increasingly specific images. An important part of this system is the area known as V2, which splits into two parts. The lower area, known as the ventral part, allows for the abilities to tell the shape of a baguette, the size of the Eiffel Tower, and the color of the bright red strawberries in the markets (López-Aranda et al., 2009). In an attempt to try to decode this part of the brain, researchers have been looking at this part of the cortex to determine which neurons do what. Certain neurons in layers of this cortex have been tested, such as the layer 3 neurons playing a part in visual processing; however, the function of layer 6 neurons in this area remained a mystery (López-Aranda et al., 2009). In a recent study, López-Aranda and associates took on the challenge of determining the function of these neurons in the 6th layer of this part of the visual cortex (López-Aranda et al., 2009). The researchers hypothesized that these neurons play a role in ORM (López-Aranda et al., 2009).

To determine the function of neurons in layer 6, López-Aranda and associates set up an experiment where rats would have the opportunity to recognize objects they had seen before (López-Aranda et al., 2009). The experimenters placed two identical objects with the rats for three minutes, then they removed the items (López-Aranda et al., 2009). Later, during testing sessions at different timepoints, the rats had the opportunity to explore one of the old items and a new item that they had never seen (López-Aranda et al., 2009). The amount of time that the rats spent around each of the objects, old and new, was measured (López-Aranda et al., 2009). If the rats spent a great deal of time around the new item and ignored the old item, the researchers concluded that the rats remembered the old item using ORM, and they would rather use their time to explore the novel item (López-Aranda et al., 2009). If the rats spent an equal amount of time around the old and the new item, then the rats did not remember the old item and spent time examining both the new and the old items (López-Aranda et al., 2009).

The normal rats were able to remember the old object for 45 minutes, but not for 60 minutes (López-Aranda et al., 2009). When the researchers inserted more RGS-14 genes, which produces a regulator of G-protein signaling protein, into layer 6 neurons of the V2 cortex three weeks before the ORM testing, the rats remembered the object for at least 24 weeks (López-Aranda et al., 2009). With more of the RGS-14 protein in these neurons, the rat’s had longer ORM (López-Aranda et al., 2009). To make sure that this ORM enhancement was unique to this combination of RGS-14 protein in the layer 6 V2 neurons, this protein was overexpressed in three other brain locations and there was no significant ORM increase (López-Aranda et al., 2009).

Further proving their point, López-Aranda and associates killed off the neurons in layer 6 of V2 with the hypothesis that this would hinder ORM (López-Aranda et al., 2009). At 45 minutes, the rats with the missing neurons did not spend more time around the new object; they couldn’t remember that they had seen the old one before (López-Aranda et al., 2009). Just to make sure that the ORM ability was unique to V2 layer 6 neurons, neurons in other structures were eliminated (López-Aranda et al., 2009). These eliminations did not change the rats’ ORM ability to remember the old object (López-Aranda et al., 2009). Based on these data showing that increased RGS-14 protein expression in layer 6 neurons of V2 increases ORM memory, and elimination of the layer 6 V2 neurons decreases ORM memory, the experimenters wondered if these neurons were important for ORM memory formation or if they were the sites where the ORM memories were stored (López-Aranda et al., 2009).

In one more experiment, rats that had increased RGS-14 protein in the layer 6 neurons of V2 were exposed to new objects (López-Aranda et al., 2009). After that, the neurons in this layer were destroyed (López-Aranda et al., 2009). The rats had some ability to recall the objects that they had previously seen, but if they were exposed to objects after the neurons were destroyed, they could not remember them at all (López-Aranda et al., 2009). This experiment shows the importance of V2 layer 6 neurons in acquiring the memory, but because the rats remembered the old objects they had seen before the neurons were destroyed, this memory could not have been stored in the V2 layer 6 neurons (López-Aranda et al., 2009). While the V2 layer 6 neurons may not house the memories that allow you to recognize objects, they are important in being able to form the memories so you can recognize the French flags and the people in Monet’s painting (López-Aranda et al., 2009).

To wrap up this post, your visual system is even more amazing than just being able to sense the brushstrokes and colors when you look at the impressionist paintings in the Musée d’Orsay. Parts of it have to do with making memories of what you have seen, so that you can apply them to your future experiences. The brain is just like the deep ocean or distant space; we are figuring it out, but so much remains unknown. This study shows that the visual system is involved with more than just processing visual information. Just like in Monet’s painting where the lines that define the objects are blurred, the functions of the visual cortex seem to be unclear as it is is implicated for other things besides vision, like ORM.

Works Cited

López-Aranda, M. F., López-Téllez, J. F., Navarro-Lobato, I., Masmudi-Martín, M., Gutiérrez, A., Khan, Z. U. (2009). Role of layer 6 of V2 visual cortex in object recognition memory. Science 325:87-89.

Winters, B. D., Saksida, L. M., Bussey, T. J. (2008). Object recognition memory: neurobiological mechanisms of encoding, consolidation, and retrieval. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 32:1055-1070.

Picture Citationsée_d’Orsay.jpg

The Musée d'Orsay is located in the top right hand corner of this map of the 7th arrondissement in Paris

 ~ by Emily Aidan Berthiaume