Attached above is a picture I took of the sunset while enjoying a picnic with some French friends on the river Seine. I remember thinking when I first got to Paris, that I wasn’t sure I could live somewhere so devoid of natural spaces to enjoy. Yes, there are ample parks, but surely it couldn’t compare to my home in Virginia. However, to my surprise, it was the Seine that provided me comfort and soothed some intermittent waves of homesickness – now it’s no Potomac, but it’ll do. I’ve always known green space to put me at ease, so this preference for the river over parks was unexpected. But nevertheless, it was my near daily walks on the Seine that brought me peace this summer. I found a study that looked into the effects of the visibility of “green space” versus “blue space” on psychological distress in Wellington, New Zealand. The results of the study corroborate my individual experience, as they found that residential exposure to visible “blue space” was associated with lower levels of psychological distress.
Nutsford, D., Pearson, A. L., Kingham, S., & Reitsma, F. (2016). Residential exposure to visible blue space (but not green space) associated with lower psychological distress in a capital city. Health and Place, 39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2016.03.002
This past Monday, the class got to visit the Musee de l’Homme right outside the Trocadero metro stop – Paris’ 20th century anthropology museum. It includes a unique collection of artifacts which are organized to represent human evolution and cultural variation. The nature of the museum is such that it takes on not only an anthropological approach, but also biological and ethnographical ones. Included above is a picture of Robina and I standing in front of a display case showing the brains of various different animals. I was very surprised to see some tiny brains, like an alligator’s brain which is about the size of three grapes. I was equally surprised to see some very large brains, larger than ours. This took me back to NBB201 and got me thinking about how the objective size of a brain is not what’s important to determining intelligence, rather it is the brain to body weight ratio.
Last week, my friend Emma came to visit! In true tourist fashion, we decided to go to Trocadero to get a good view of the Eiffel Tower and watch it sparkle as the clock hit midnight. The area was crowded and full of people who undoubtedly had the same genius idea as us; the human desire to see something sparkle is evidently quite strong. While we stood there marveling at the monument in all its opulence, we both noted how we had expected the Eiffel Tower to be bigger than it really was. This got me thinking about perspective – from only ever looking at images, we overestimated the size of the Eiffel Tower. But from another vein, in an image, such as the one posted above, the Eiffel Tower might look tiny in comparison to us standing in the foreground – so how does the brain know that this is a matter of perspective, not the Eiffel Tower’s actual size? In a PubMed search, I found a study that actually looked at perspective and estimation of size in regards to the Eiffel Tower! The study found that when leaning to the left, participants estimated the Eiffel Tower’s size to be smaller than participants that stood upright or leaned to the right. Even something as small as posture affects our brain’s perception of an object.
Eerland, A., Guadalupe, T. M., & Zwaan, R. A. (2011). Leaning to the left makes the Eiffel Tower seem smaller: posture-modulated estimation. Psychological science, 22(12), 1511–1514. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611420731
Last week, I finally made it out to see the gorgeous and breathtaking basilica of Sacre Coeur at Montemarte. This 19th century architectural wonder sits upon the highest point of the city of Paris. From its summit you can look out onto the bustling city below and admire its sprawling grandeur. The steps leading up to the basilica are lively and full of many different types of individuals all gathered to marvel at the very same view – making Montemarte arguably the best spot for people-watching in all of Paris! I myself spent a good hour just observing the surroundings and was pleasantly surprised when a man began to play live music on the guitar and many of the people around me got up to dance. The response was endearing, and dare I say magical. It got me thinking on the therapeutic quality of music, for which I found a study that found that music has a direct impact on the autonomic nervous system. For patients in end of life care, music has been found to reduce stress, pain, and anxiety, while enhancing well-being and compassion.
Kemper, K. J., & Danhauer, S. C. (2005). Music as therapy. Southern medical journal, 98(3), 282–288. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.SMJ.0000154773.11986.39
This Tuesday, June 7th, we had the opportunity to visit the Musee de Moulages at the Hospital Saint-Louis. The museum houses “a unique collection of wax dermatological models”, as coined by the subtitle on the front cover of the museum pamphlet.
Reflecting upon my visit, I can concur that this museum has a unique collection indeed. With collections of wax models displaying pathologies such as syphilis, tuberculosis, eczema, acne, elephantiasis, tumors, and much more, the museum leaves a lasting impression.
The first week of the program, we learned about the “gut-brain axis” with the first target article. Upon visiting the dermatology museum, I began to wonder if the same kind of connection exists between the brain and the skin, a “skin-brain axis”. Considering that the skin is the largest organ in the body, I postulated that this connection must exist in some form or another. Before diving into the current scientific literature, I speculated on different relationships that might exist between the brain and the skin: How do neurological variables such as stress manifest in the skin? How does skin pathology affect the brain? What kinds of information does the skin communicate to the brain and through what mechanisms?
I found that the “brain-skin” connection does exist, and lends itself to a great intersection of research involving different fields of study such as psychology, neurobiology, dermatology, immunology, etc. Stress and skin conditions have been known to be associated for centuries, and modern research has established the existence of a causal relationship as psychological stress can lead to the onset and/or aggravation of multiple skin diseases. Many studies also reveal that stress accelerates skin aging (Lee et al., 2020; Rinnerthaler et al., 2015) and exacerbates skin inflammation (Chen et al., 2014). Not surprisingly, anxiety has been proven to increase susceptibility to skin diseases which one study claims is due to the disruption of cutaneous homeostasis via prolonged sympathetic nervous system activation (Öksüz et al., 2020). In addition, the relationship between depression and chronic wounds has been investigated as these conditions often have a high comorbidity (Hadian et al., 2020).
However, in my opinion, the most interesting finding of my literature review of the skin-brain axis concerned the affective function of the skin. The discriminative properties of the skin have been well identified, however, the discovery of a new class of nerve fiber, unmyelinated C-fiber afferents, has led to a new understanding of skin function as a coder of emotional touch. C-tactile mediated touch such as massage therapy has exciting implications for clinical treatments of both physical and psychological symptoms of chronic skin conditions like eczema.
All in all, neuroscience is a wonderfully interdisciplinary subject that has interesting implications on nearly all areas of biology and different clinical practices – including dermatology!
Hadian, Y., Fregoso, D., Nguyen, C., Bagood, M. D., Dahle, S. E., Gareau, M. G., & Isseroff, R. R. (2020). Microbiome-skin-brain axis: A novel paradigm for cutaneous wounds. Wound repair and regeneration : official publication of the Wound Healing Society [and] the European Tissue Repair Society, 28(3), 282–292. https://doi.org/10.1111/wrr.12800
Lee, C. M., Watson, R., & Kleyn, C. E. (2020). The impact of perceived stress on skin ageing. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology : JEADV, 34(1), 54–58. https://doi.org/10.1111/jdv.15865
Lloyd, D. M., McGlone, F. P., & Yosipovitch, G. (2015). Somatosensory pleasure circuit: from skin to brain and back. Experimental dermatology, 24(5), 321–324. https://doi.org/10.1111/exd.12639
Öksüz, Ö., Günver, G., Oba, M. Ç., & Arıkan, K. (2020). Psychiatry to dermatology; panic disorder. Journal of clinical neuroscience : official journal of the Neurosurgical Society of Australasia, 81, 316–320. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jocn.2020.09.071
Rinnerthaler, M., Bischof, J., Streubel, M. K., Trost, A., & Richter, K. (2015). Oxidative stress in aging human skin. Biomolecules, 5(2), 545–589. https://doi.org/10.3390/biom5020545
At first glance, cemeteries often leave a melancholic and gloomy impression on people. However, the true essence of a cemetery is quite the opposite. Not only do they act as living relics reflecting the culture and history of their environment, but they also bring people together by offering a space to commemorate the dead – offering an air of serene remembrance. Or perhaps confrontation with our mortality is conducive to fostering community, as we all acknowledge our combined fate.
This week I had the opportunity to visit Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise, one of the world’s most visited and legendary necropolises in the world. The visit was characterized by a breathtaking amalgam of antique tombs, modern headstones, and ornate mausoleums. Walking through this labyrinth of a cemetery, I couldn’t help but think of Milan Kundera’s Immortality, in which he suggests that when a person passes and continues to live on in the memories of others, they are immortal. I had the overwhelming sensation that my presence, and the presence of others, was giving life (hence, immortality) to those resting around me.
This got me thinking on the utility of memorialization and burial – why is it important to have a physical manifestation of oneself after death? Why has this practice surfaced in cultures all around the world and seemingly since the beginning of human history? In my search for these answers, I began with investigating the effects that grief and bereavement have on the brain. The study Gundel et. al (2003) found that picture and word factors targeting grief affects the posterior cingulate cortex, medial/superior frontal gyrus, and the cerebellum. The picture factor specifically activated the cuneus, superior lingual gyrus, insula, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, inferior temporal gyrus, and fusiform gyrus, while the word factor uniquely activated the precuneus, precentral gyrus, midbrain, and vermis. This is to say that grief has an extensive effect on many neural processes and is mediated by a distributed neural network. This study shows that grief affects the brain’s processing of episodic memory, visual imagery, autonomic regulation, and many other functions. Considering this pervasive effect, it is no surprise that grief has been shown to impact one’s health – after all, dying by way of a “broken heart” is no cliché.
Establishments such as cemeteries help to mitigate the negative effects that grief has on a person. These monuments extend the memory of the person whose passed, helping to keep it alive, and ultimately make immortality a reality.
Gündel, H., O’Connor, M. F., Littrell, L., Fort, C., & Lane, R. D. (2003). Functional neuroanatomy of grief: an FMRI study. The American journal of psychiatry, 160(11), 1946–1953. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.160.11.1946